We Discovered The World Together – RTW Family Travel 20 Years Later

I was 11, tall for my age, lanky, a bit shy, and perpetually curious.  I wasn’t a huge fan of school and found the whole thing awkward but, I had my core group of friends and powerful interests.  I was introduced to travel before I could walk – carving long furrows in the golden sands of Puerto Penasco’s pristine beaches while joining Dad in our inflatable Sea Eagles for light boating.  That relationship to travel persisted as I grew up first in Colorado, and then moved at the age of six to Sedona, Arizona. We’d camp, we’d hike, and when not making trips to Puerto Penasco, Mexico we’d spend time in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.

It was a great childhood, and yet, I was far from outdoorsy. My passions and interests were equally dedicated to our computer. I spent as many afternoons and evenings as I could hogging the computer, and later as we got access to the web, the phone line as I battled through the nail- biting sounds of an old dial-up modem.  My folks were concerned that my social growth might be impacted or that I was rotting my brain – luckily, they’ve come around and in the interim made sure there was ample non-digital stimulation to keep things balanced.

So it was with some shock and disbelief that I received the news that we’d be renting our house and leaving everything behind for 11 months.  There wasn’t much warning. I didn’t really know what to expect, and at the age of 11, I’m not sure you even really properly understand what a trip 11 months long could possible entail. I vaguely remember thinking it was the end of the world and a grand new adventure.  At a certain level I think it felt like I was moving, more or less never to see my friends again.

The Busy Bosphorus – Weekly Travel Photo

Waiting Ships at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

The Bosphorus has served as one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares for thousands of years.  One aspect of Istanbul that always captures my imagination and fascinates me is the long cue as ships rest moored at the mouth to the channel while awaiting the green light to pass through the heart of the city.  This photo was captured at sunset from the Kadikoy ferry as we left behind the docks of Istanbul’s Asian side and steamed across the Bosphorus, ducking and dodging large tankers and cargo vessels, back to the European side where our hostel was located.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!

Dining Manners and Etiquette – How To Use Your Knife and Fork Abroad

Table in Copenhagen

I just spent the evening ruining a perfectly good hamburger while trying to re-learn how to use my knife and fork. In an effort to immerse myself more completely during my time in Europe and Scandinavia I’m starting to try and eat like a European.  Unfortunately, that means awkwardly using my knife and fork, throwing a chunk of my traditional American table manners out the window, and desecrating – yes I said desecrating – hamburgers.

If you’re planning a trip to Europe and are from the US one key (but subtle) difference to prepare for is how you cut and eat your food.  For those of you raised to eat in the European/Continental style this won’t be an issue for you.  If, like me, you were raised using the American style you’re in for a bit of an adventure and this post is for you.

First, let’s get back to basics.  Just what are the American and Euro/Continental styles that I’m talking about?  They’re two different approaches for using your knife and fork during a meal.  While you’ll encounter other cultural differences in the way a table is set and what is considered polite the use of your knife and fork is one of the most blatant cultural faux paus Americans make while dining abroad. Let’s take a look at the styles via wikipedia:

The American style

In the American style, also called the zig-zag method, the knife is initially held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food to the plate with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. The knife is then set down on the plate, the fork transferred from the left hand to the right hand, and the food is brought to the mouth for consumption. The fork is then transferred back to the left hand and the knife is picked up with the right.  In contrast to the European hidden handle grip, in the American style the fork is held much like a spoon or pen once it is transferred to the right hand to convey food to the mouth.

The European style

The European style, also called the continental style, is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece of food has been cut, it is conducted straight to the mouth by the left hand. The tines remain pointing down. The knife and fork are both held with the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called “hidden handle” because the palm conceals the handle.

While seemingly a fairly subtle difference, it’s amazing how challenging it is to use one’s fork in a different hand and fashion than you’re accustomed to.  Perhaps it’s just indicative of my complete lack of ambidexterity, but I’m better at writing my name with my left hand than I am at using it to pilot my fork.  I fear that at times I look less like a well mannered diner, and more like a bumbling fool trying far too hard not to dump a fork full of food into my lap.

Is it something the average traveller should worry about?  Not in most situations, however, if you’re studying or working abroad sound table manners can be the difference between getting a job or a follow up invitation to future events.  It’s something to be aware of, and if you’re feeling adventurous to try and adopt.  It’s a small thing, but it is something that people notice.  Good luck and bon appétit!

Have a story to share about table manners or a tip to add?  Please share it in a comment below.