Coming Soon: Dad, Budapest & Prague

My dad returned home to the States yesterday from a 9-day trip to Europe. He came to Rome, and we also visited Budapest and Prague. I had been to Prague before, but Budapest was a first. It was a great time! It still amazes me how in Europe you can fly a few hours and be transported to a completely different culture, history, and language. I’m going to blog about the trip in a few upcoming posts. For now, here is a picture of me doing my trademark handstand in Budapest’s Heroes Square.


Istanbul: Topkapi Palace & the Hagia Sophia

I arrived in Istanbul on December 26, 2018, at about 6:30 p.m. from a flight from Bucharest, Romania. I had flown from Rome to Bucharest and then to Istanbul. (My first time “in” Romania! Yay!)  I got off the plane and waited with a mob of other people to go through passport control. I had my Turkish visa printed and ready…

I stayed in the Fatih area of Istanbul, which is on the European side. I picked the hotel and the area because it’s the neighborhood with famous historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.

I set up a 2-day guided tour with a company I found suggested on TripAdvisor. I thought it was a small-group tour, but when the guide came to meet me at my hotel in the morning at 9 a.m., I found out the tour was just me and my guide. I almost would have preferred a few other people, but it ended up working out fine.

I love taking guided tours when I first get to the city. I will have already done a lot of reading and research on the history and culture of the place, but I like how I get a broad overview of the city and its important places on a tour. It allows me to familiarize myself with the surroundings and figure out what I want to go back to or see later. I’ve found this is my favorite way to enter a new place, and I’ve done it in many countries around the world. Because I’m such a history buff, it gives me an orientation about the historical and cultural aspects of a place as well, which is one of my favorite parts of traveling.

Our first stop was Topkapi Palace. This is where the sultans lived with about 4,000 of their closest family, friends, children, servants, concubines, eunuchs, and courtiers between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire.

Although the palace compound extends around much further, the “museum” opens with the Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation (below). It leads into the palace proper, and with the two towers flanking the gate, it was supposed to serve as a symbol of the pomp and majesty of the Ottoman empire. It has subsequently become an icon for the whole palace.


Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation

On the upper part of the gate, there is a calligraphic inscription of the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.” (below)

Only the sultan was allowed to pass through this gate on horseback. Other state officials such as the grand vizier had to dismount their horses before entering.


Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

Inside the gate lies the Second Courtyard which includes the Imperial Council Chamber (below), where the Dîvân (Council) made laws, citizens presented petitions, and foreign dignitaries were presented to the court. The sultans were said to have eavesdropped on proceedings through the window with the golden grille.


Imperial Council Chamber

One of my favorite things about mosques and Islam art is the decoration. In Islam, depictions of the prophet Mohammed and of God are forbidden, so much of their architecture and decoration is mosaic tiles of geometric or floral patterns and fanciful or elaborate script. Here are some examples from Topkapi Palace:




I explored the rest of the palace grounds, which included palace kitchens, the Imperial Treasury, the harem where the wives and children of the sultan lived, the Marble Terrace, and much more. I could go on with various pictures of buildings, but suffice it to say it was definitely a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the sultans and the Ottoman empire’s ruling class.

My next stop, the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), is what originally drew me to Istanbul from having studied it in school. I was attracted to it for its historical, religious, and cultural significances. It was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 536, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 (and renamed Aya Sofya), and declared a museum by Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) in 1935.


It’s famous for its mosaics, which the Muslims covered up with plaster when it became a mosque. It was only after being declared a museum that they began to recover some of the mosaics that were hidden after the conversion of the structure. Below are some of my pictures.



The dome



Ottoman medallions (below, and seen in the pictures above) are inscribed with the gilt Arabic letters with the names of God (Allah), Mohammed, and the early caliphs Ali and Abu Bakr.


More to come!


Istanbul (not Constantinople), oh… and my Roma

This is a short post because I am excited to tell everyone that I’m going to Istanbul from December 26-30 as a “gift” to myself. Much to my parents’ dismay (Erdoğan, Khashoggi (RIP), among others), it has been on my “list” for a long time because it’s a literal gateway between Europe and Asia. And winter is the “down” season, so prices are much more reasonable. I go with full knowledge of the risks of a country known as a gateway to Syria, a border country to Iraq, a country in conflict with the aspiring “Kurdistan,” and not the most stable government. But travel and history and culture is the love of my life so far (to be vulnerable: hopefully, someday that love of my life will be a guy – who (must) accept that travel will always be my first love!). All I can do is be grateful, thankful, and in awe of the privileges life has bestowed on me in terms of seeing the world. All I can do is be smart, experienced, and cultured in pursuit of what I love – and that is to see the world through my own eyes, with the privileges of the formal education so valued and gifted to me by my parents as well as the the informal education my life’s journey has sometimes unwillingly dragged me through.

As for Christmas day, I will go to St. Peter’s Square for “Urbi et Orbi” Blessing at 12 noon in St Peter’s Square. Not sure what this is, but I want to experience it.

Also, New Year’s is one of my least favorite days/nights of the year. So even though I usually try to fall asleep as early as possible and miss it completely, I won’t miss a chance to see this at one of my favorite places in the world… A version of this scene was the background on my laptop for years. And here I am. Chills.


So grateful.


Another anecdote for my “book”: losing my passport

I’m starting to write this post at 12:10 a.m. on Thursday, October 4, 2018. I’m not going to publish it until the issue is resolved because I don’t want people worried. I even debated writing about this at all, because it is such a “rookie mistake” and so unlike me.  So see further down in the post for an update.

I lost my passport. I don’t know how. My passport is one of my favorite things in the world. It is my lifeline, and I feel sick and worried without it. I’m going to the embassy in the morning to get a new passport as soon as they open at 8:30, but it will only be a temporary passport, so then I’ll have to “convert” it to a regular one. You can only get “regular” passports made in the U.S., so I hope I can get the emergency passport and then send off for my regular one right away to have it delivered in Rome within a few weeks.

It makes me sick. I LOVE my passport. I have never lost it EVER. It’s always at the very bottom of my bag. I remember taking it out of my bag to fit in all my towels and clothes and toiletries to shower at the gym. That’s the last time I remember having it. I don’t know if another time I went to the gym if I forgot to take it out of my bag and so I left it at the gym? But I’ve been there twice inquiring about it, and they don’t have anything. I’ve looked everywhere, and it makes me just sick and disappointed in myself. I am a good traveler. I always, always know where my passport is. It must have happened one of the times I was switching my regular items in my bag to the things I need for the gym. But I’ve looked everywhere. I know I keep repeating myself, but this is just so bizarre.

I’m almost 100% positive someone didn’t steal it from me, because nothing else in my bag is missing. This is the trouble with me forgetting to bring a gym bag – I was switching things back and forth from my regular “stuff” like wallet, meds, etc. to my gym stuff and back again. The passport must have gotten lost in one of those transfers. But shouldn’t it be somewhere in my room then?

I just am so, so, so mad at myself and disappointed. This is NOT like me to lose my PASSPORT. It is my prized possession; it is my gateway to the world; it symbolizes my freedom to live my life on my own terms, right or wrong. It has always made me feel secure just knowing I have it, even when I’m in the U.S. I cannot fathom how this happened. Even with an “emergency” passport from the embassy in the morning, I’m still not going to feel “secure” until I have a new regular passport in my hands, and even then it makes me mad at myself that I’ll never get the lost passport back.

I don’t think I’m going to get any sleep at all tonight.

1:53 p.m., Thursday, October 4

I slept about an hour last night due to worry, so hopefully tonight will be better.

Oh boy. It’s always an adventure with me. The good news: once I got into the embassy, the process was pretty easy to get a new passport. They usually issue “emergency” passports to travelers because they need them to get back home, but because I’m staying in Italy, they’re going to have a brand new passport for me to pick up in two weeks. That saves me having to get an “emergency” passport and then having to convert it to a regular one once I get back to the States. I’m very pleased with the outcome.

Getting IN the consulate/embassy was a different matter. I got to the embassy around 8:45. I was standing in the U.S. citizens line and the guards kept allowing people to go ahead of me. I finally asked why, and they said that my bag was too big and it wouldn’t be allowed in. So… basically, if I hadn’t asked I’d still be standing there wondering why I wasn’t getting in? I then asked them what I was supposed to do. And they brought out a phone and had me talk to someone inside the consulate who said there’s a UPS that allows bag storage for 5 euros. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I could bring this bag onto a plane, and I specifically looked at the instructions for lost or stolen passports and there was no mention of the size of the bags. So I walk to the UPS store 3 blocks down only to find it doesn’t open until 9:30, and it’s 9:00. Soon a Nigerian guy joined me who wasn’t let in because his backpack was “too big,” and a few minutes later an Ethiopian guy came with the same problem. We stood there and talked until exactly 9:38 when a guy came to open the UPS store. We paid our 5 euros each and went back to the embassy together as a united force. I was finally let in with my wallet, phone, and a photocopy of my passport. I had to turn my phone off and leave it with the guards by the metal detector.

Once I got upstairs to the “US Citizens” part, there were a few other Americans in similar situations sitting around waiting to be called. An older guy sitting in a chair in front of me was telling me how he lived in Damascus for 5 years and Baghdad for 4 years, speaks fluent Arabic, and he doesn’t have a home – he’s a nomad. He just did a pilgrimage from somewhere in England to somewhere in Spain. He’s now thinking about becoming a priest. I was so interested. It’s crazy the people you meet along the way.