Cruisin to Asia

Istanbul, Day 3 

We wake up early (ugh) and unfortunately, the power is out in Chill Out Cengo (double ugh). I figure I’ll just rough it and go for the cold shower, trying to think about how much better I’ll feel being clean for the whole day instead of cold for a few minutes. Now, I’m not sure which would have been worse, since it was so cold I basically spent the day covered in soap after showering in a Hostel film-esque shower by light of my cell phone.

But anyway, a shuttle comes to pick us up to go on a boat through the Bosphorus Channel and the Black Sea to Asia after we fuel ourselves with Starbucks (again) and I sit next to a rando on the shuttle, who proceeds to tell me about how in Egypt, she is a tv broadcaster and has her own talk show. She tells me all about my sign as an Aquarius and gives me her email and tells me that if I come to Egypt, I better give her a buzz. Not a bad deal for a 20 minute bus ride.

When we get to the coastline, we get on a ferry which takes us to Dolmabahce Palace, a majestic and jeweled-out palace that I should be appreciating but really I’m just tired as hell. The views aren’t too shabby from the coastline though, and I can imagine why the sultans didn’t want to leave. Too bad all I can think about it ZOLTAN!


After we get back on the boat, we get another traditional Turkish meal as our ferry sails over to the Asian side of Turkey, a country that is split on part Europe and part Asia. We don’t do much on the Asia side, basically just get harassed and eat waffles, but whatevs I went to Asia!

Asia... NBD. I'm a boss.

On the way back, we stop at the Maiden’s Tower, a tower that overlooks the city. It was built because a sultan got a fortune that his daughter would die before her 18th birthday by being bit by a snake, so he locked her up in the tower until her birthday. When she turned 18, to celebrate, he came to free her and brought a big basket of fruit… in which a snake had snuck inside and bit her as it got inside the tower.

Later that night, we run through the rain to get to where our pub crawl meets, a weird hodge podge of people that includes us (already a weird mix in itself), a 40ish computer program from Seattle who insists he doesn’t have a job because of the “caste system,” an army medic stationed in Naples, and two girls from Amsterdam who are clearly already wasted. Plus, of course, the leader of our pub crawl, a dad-aged Turkish man named Ali, comes with us and feeds us shots, who turns out to be the best dancer of all. Guess some things don’t fade with age.

Being out and about in Taksim Square is a funny thing. Sometimes you hear American music and you dance along, eager to have found a piece of home. While other times, much like being far from home in the first place, you hear something quite different and you just go with the flow.

Mosques, Bazaars, and Magic Lamps

Istanbul, Day 2

The second I walk outside, I’m counting my lucky stars that I’m in nice warm Istanbul where a jacket is optional when it’s monsooning in Florence and I was wishing I had my thicker winter coat. However, the sun doesn’t last for long and soon it’s rainy and chilly anyways, but whatevs. We go to breakfast at some kind of little place nearby, where we get a pretty nice mix of stuff as well as the traditional Turkish tea, a happy change in the mornings when I’m used to cappuccinos that fulfill my calorie intake for the day (not that this matters).

We then take the subway- myself, our tour guide, a Catholic fashion student from New York, the Venetian aspiring lawyer, and a quiet Psychology major from Colorado, and we head off to the center of Istanbul, where the mosques, the Grand Bazaar, and other main sights basically are. There, we meet our tour guide for the day, a Turkish girl named Elif who is currently hanging out with her boss, a mom from Colorado who got bored one day, sold all her stuff, moved to Greece, and is now chilling out in Turkey for a while.

Elif first takes us to the Blue Mosque, which is supposed to be open but is closed. She takes us two other times later, where it is also closed. Apparently signs and opening times are of no hindrance, understandable because this is a place of worship firstly, not a tourist picture point.

Blue Mosque

So instead, we go over to Hagia Sophia, which from the outside, isn’t  very much. When Elif tells us it costs 25 Turkish lira to get inside (about 14 dollars), I’m trying to deem how socially inappropriate it would be to tell her that she can find me on the bench outside when she’s done, chillin by the fountain and eating pretzels.

Hagia Sophia

But instead I take out my wallet (okay, fine, dinky change purse thing) and we go inside the kind of dilapidated building. Which is no longer a dilapidated building on the inside. Damn.

Instead, it is a cluster of textures and colors, golds and browns and oranges, all intertwining with one another and becoming such an opulent masterpiece that it’s hard to believe someone made this and didn’t just throw some colors on a canvas and call it a day. We spy the Sultan’s Tower, which is where the Sultan himself worshipped from afar, and then we make a wish on this wheel thingy as we spin our hands in it. I’m not telling you what I wished for, so don’t even ask.

Inside Hagia Sophia

Even though as we’re leaving it’s raining harder and harder, nobody minds, especially when we get our beloved Starbucks (thank the Lord for caffeine) and then finally get inside the Blue Mosque, deemed because of its blue topped towers. Entering the mosque, since I’m wearing leggings, I have to put on this skirt they give me and wrap my head in a scarf as well as put plastic on my shoes. People have been confusing me for a Turk all day, but now I really look legit. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is less touristed out and more a legit place of worship, surrounded by seemingly floating candles and people kneeling on the red carpeted floor.

Blue Mosque

After the mosque and a traditional Turkish lunch of meatballs, which are more like meat sticks really, we go to the Grand Bazaar- probably the most anticipated destination thus far of girls. I was expected an atmosphere similar to Canal Street in New York or the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, lots of stands with hassling men, but instead, the Bazaar looks a lot more like the Ponte Vecchio on steroids with all the jewelry and ceramic elephants and magic lamps under covered streets, making it look more like a cheap mall. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones to stampede the Bazaar, and the lack of negotiating and abundance of overpriced junk and confused tourists reflects this.

Grand Bazaar

We also stop by the Topkapi Palace, a pile of different museums that hosts a lot of the sultan’s jewels and other sultany stuff (this isn’t a word but that’s okay). Perhaps the coolest thing we see is the special exhibit of a couple of the stone soldiers found of the Terracotta Army, which I oh-so-subtly took pictures of (and then got yelled at).

Terracotta Army

Plus, we stopped by the Hippodrum, the old square center of Istanbul where there a few relics to remind those who pass by of the breathtaking history of the city, including the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpent Column, a gift to Turkey that used to be way taller and have three heads on its snakes but now has none…? Whatevs, it’s cool Istanbul.

The City of Lights

So what is the City of Lights? Why did I name this post that? Honestly, I have no idea. I know Paris is supposed to be the “City of Lights” but after my weekend in Istanbul, I am going to have to politely disagree. Especially considering it rained the entire weekend, trust me when I tell you that city is lit up like a damn Christmas tree.

Day 1 

First of all, when I paid like $125 for my flight to Turkey, a place that doesn’t have a great reputation to begin with, I was kind of expecting a Ryannair-esque flight with Turkish Airlines; you know, the obnoxious 70’s blue upholstery, the fighting for seats, the lack of anything free, and the abundance of stewardesses in hooker outfits. Instead, I got a four-course meal, a row to myself, and some cool Asian music to listen to. Not a bad deal.

Flying into Istanbul reminds you pretty quickly that you’re going somewhere unlike anywhere else you have been lucky enough to visit. As you float over the water, you see the little boats dotting the coast with their lights shining, not too far away from the big opulent mosques and the sparkles that can only exist in the fifth biggest city in the world, which hosts 13 million people.

The Maiden's Tower

Thankfully, since I am directionally challenged, I met another girl on my tour group while getting off the plane who was on her way to the same hostel as me. No really, thank God. A Colombian who was currently studying in Venice, she told me about her ambitions to be a lawyer all while discussing the lack of partying in Venice. Basically, my perfect mix of person.

As soon as the packed shuttle dropped us off in Taksim Square, which isn’t very near the mosques and otherwise attractions and coastline in Istanbul but instead hosts the array of bars and clubs and waffle stands, I became even more thankful I wasn’t alone. Not many of the broken cobble-stoned streets have signs, not many people and speak English, and not many people are girls. Weird. Instead, Taksim Square on a Thursday night bustles with piles of men all clamoring over each other in drunken stupors, whistling and cheering and staring. Besides the men, there are also an odd abundance of cats, who beg just like dogs and crowd the streets just as much. Apparently, as a guide later tells us, the city breeds them for people who can’t afford pets to play with.

We also stop to snag some baklava, a traditional Turkish dessert that is a little croissant-like pastry that is filled with honey or chocolate and lots of other sweet stuff. Who would have thought Turkey would be such a hub for desserts?

This all may sound very un-charming, but actually, it is. It’s a jumble of people in an orderly hustle who are singing and yelling and laughing, their faces lit up by the golden and pink lights in the windows. However, after all day travel, I was still happy to stumble upon our hostel, which was basically someone’s converted house with a couple extra bathrooms thrown in (thankfully).

Chill Out Cengo

A Sum of its Parts

As we enter into single-digit days of our time left here in Italy, we are often asked these questions…

What was the coolest thing you did?

What was your favorite place you visited? 

What’s the craziest thing that happened?

I feel like I speak for everyone when I say that when someone asks one of these questions, my brain kind of freezes. I want to give them the intelligible, wonderful, unbelievable answer they were looking for. I want to tell them about how Prince William met me in a bar in England and swept me off to his palace and I want to tell them about how I fought a band of thieves in Istanbul and returned unscathed with their loot and I want to tell them how I saw the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and got some great pix that they just have to see.


Unfortunately, as you are probably guessing, none of these things happened.

So, when someone asks me one of these questions, I can feel their disappointment looming as I say that although cliche, I loved almost everywhere that I visited, and picking a favorite city is like picking a favorite child. When I tell them that just the prospect of being here the craziest situation in itself, I can sense their interest fading as they reach for their drink.

Which is why I want to stress that a semester abroad, isn’t, and shouldn’t be anyway, a time that can be summed up in one experience, one country, or one person. It isn’t something that I can explain away by telling someone about the breathtaking and unscathed beaches in Croatia, the dark and ominous Cliffs of Moher, or the bustling lights in Istanbul. None of these really captures anything at all, and if I try to explain it, I end up feeling like I just shortchanged my semester anyway.


Instead, a time abroad, a time away from the daily bores and people and errands of ordinary life, is made up of many small experiences that only you will ever know. No, you didn’t meet Prince William, but you did meet the cutest little old man on the airplane to Austria who told you about China and how he scuba dived in the Galapagos Islands and how he really thinks you’ll be great someday. No, you didn’t get a picture of the Loch Ness monster, but you did get some beautiful shots of the Eiffel Tower as it sparkled on the dot. No, you didn’t fight a band of thieves in Istanbul, but you did put on your game face and visit a city alone that frightened you to death, yet you went anyway with five other random strangers and stepped on the soil of Asia and ran amok Taksim Square by nightfall.

Taksim Square

Just like all other things in life, a semester abroad isn’t a single experience that can fit itself into a standard refrigerator box. Instead, it’s a pile of knickknacks on the floor that you kick under your bed when you get home, but when it’s getting dark out and you find your mind racing, you pull one out and remember how sick your life really is.


A funny thing happens when you travel. Somewhere along the point where you bought a ticket and you post dopey pictures on Facebook, everyone suddenly thinks you’re way cooler.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this. But more than one person, usually people whom I used to be close with but I have grown apart from over the years, have messaged me in some form or another and said something along the lines of, “Glad to see all you have accomplished in life! I’m so proud of you!”

Not that this is a bad thing in the least; I feel very happy and fortunate to not only talk to these people once again, if only for a fleeting moment, and of course be in Italy too and spending my semester across the pond. But one thing that kind of gets to me is this: why is it that travel is what has validated everything else that you have accomplished?

I’m gonna toot my own horn here a little bit- although high school was a lot of fun and I made the best friends I think I will ever have and I really figured out what general direction I wanted to go in during life, I was kind of a mess. I was always upset over this and that, stressed out and sad and making silly teenage drama something of a big deal. College started out rough, but now I feel that I’ve done pretty well for myself: I finished my Honors thesis last year, I will graduate next semester with two minors, and I’ve held various positions in my University from editor-in-chief of the Honors Newsletter, Features editor and Senior editor of our University paper, president of the Honors Student Council, writer for our literary magazine, tutor in computer skills and English, and Supervisor for our alumni contact program of the Annual Fund.

So now I have to ask: why is it that one semester of running around Europe suddenly makes you successful?

Well, it doesn’t. That’s all. Maybe what you have done becomes more visible to people throughout your lame photos that you send to your friends. But the point I’m really getting at here is that you don’t need some obscenely expensive trip to prove you’ve done something or change yourself into someone important.

I think that many of us held the notion that after leaving from our semester abroad, we would be totally different people- enlightened, mature, responsible, independent. Have we retained some of these skills throughout the few short months? Yeah, probably. But I think that in part, they were already there.

So students abroad, don’t fret that you didn’t have some Great Revelation throughout the weeks you were chugging wine on Via del Proconsolo or that you didn’t find yourself within one of the many airports you trekked through. Hell, you could have done those things within the comfort of your room. If everyone at home wants to think that now you’re something great, then let them. But the truth of it is, if you made the conscious decision to abandon your mom, your dog, your comfort, and basically everything else you’ve ever known to hop on a plane with fifteen (or zero) random strangers for three months, you probably weren’t as awful as you thought to begin with.


Pretty sure I was already this weird before I bought a plane ticket.

The Wonders of Sobriety

Being that most people who study abroad are juniors in college, many of them haven’t hit the much-coveted 21-year mark yet and feel the need to milk the bars in Europe for all they’re worth, blowing their money on beers before they are shipped back to the States and they have to go back to overcrowded frat parties and badly mixed drinks for a few more solid months.

Since I’m already 21, I don’t fit into this category (anymore). Don’t get me wrong, when I was 20 I would have killed (literally, actually killed people) to be at the bar with all my friends, where I heard, from my good 21-year-old friend Jesse, that “everything you could ever want is there, from rainbows and unicorns to all the best loot you can imagine.”

However, I’m grateful to have already been 21 for a good while before coming here, because I feel absolutely no impulse to blow all my money (and time) on getting drunk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for going out and having a good time… on the weekends. When I have nothing else of value to do. But when it’s Wednesday and I have class at 9:00 am the next day with my crazy Italian professor, then no, I don’t really feel like going to the bar with you. Sorry.

I totally understand that people come abroad for different reasons. Some people come to solely travel, like myself. Some come to live; to learn the culture and go out to eat and study Italian. Some come to shop and come home with a coveted new Italian wardrobe. And others come to party. This is okay.

But before you choose to spend yet another five euros at the bar (for the first twenty minutes…) think about this- all that spent money on shitty drinks on Monday nights could have gone towards your trip to Switzerland, a beautiful steak dinner with your new Italian friends, or a pair of fancy Italian leather boots bargained for at the San Lorenzo market. Your memories of Florence don’t have to be a haze for you to know that you had a good time. A balance exists, you just have to find it within the piles of pasta and gelato.


Everything I drank for this night I did so in the comfort and cheapness of my own apartment. WIN.

Repeat This.

Out of the zillions of things that I kind of wish someone would have alluded at to me before I stepped onto a plane (“Maybe you should bring more than five shirts.” “An extra charger will be useful for when you blow them all out.” “You should really be working more in the summer before you leave instead of spending so much time at the beach bar”) one of them that was mentioned to me which has remained true is to keep an open mind. 

This struck me the most when my friend visited from back home last week, who had a hard time with the various eccentricities that cloud Italy like:

1. How my apartment’s electricity switches off at least twice a day

2. Some people get drunk and run around screaming on all the days that end in “y”

3. Any listed times for public transportation have a buffer period of like a year

4. You will get whatever food the chef feels like making

When these, and various other things happened to us, she asked me, “Doesn’t this bug you?” when I realized, no, it actually doesn’t. If I was a random visitor and not well prepared, if I was me three months ago, then yes it would.

But thank you, advisor, for really stressing me to actually keep an open mind and not wholly freak out every time things don’t go my way. This truly is the most important thing in study abroad and perhaps in life: it is very easier to get frustrated, angry, irritable, and downright aghast when things don’t go your way. But if you stop for a second and think to yourself, Okay, what is the other side of this? What are these people thinking? your experience is going to be a whole lot happier.

For example: Those girls who drink every night? Maybe they don’t have the money to travel every weekend like you do, so they’re making up for it by having a good time when they can. That chef who gave you the wrong order? This is his favorite dish and he knew you were going to like it. The fact the bus is like twenty minutes late? Maybe this is teaching you that you need to walk a little faster and stop buying so many cannolis when you should be at the bus stop already.

So spend an extra five seconds thinking about the situation. Take a breather and a laugh after you realize you are lost- again- and yes, the tour group has already left you behind anyway so you might as well begin that self-guided tour now and make some friends. Trust me, having an open mind here in Italy, as well as back in America where you can argue your way out of anything, will take you farther than any plane will.

I Think Romance Missed the Flight.

Today over some wine in my Pairing Food with Wine class (thank you, study abroad), I overheard this conversation, which really isn’t very out of the ordinary:

Girl 1: “I don’t do very well in relationships because I’m just like ‘The Man.’ He will always be texting me and I’m just like, ‘I don’t care.'”

Girl 2: “Well I mean, like, the only reason I said yes to my boyfriend because he was just like, ‘Everything is gonna stay exactly the same while you’re in Florence. Just email me like once a week to let me know you’re alive. ‘ Which is great for me because I just want to do my own thing.” (Also, to note, this girl also said that this boy surprised her by flying out to Florence to visit her and bought her a ticket to Paris and then asked her out on some famous bridge).

Girl 3: “I just want to be single because c’mon, I’m 20-years-old. I don’t want to be tied down because who knows where my job will take me? Or graduate school? My mom always says that a boy can follow me around if he wants to as I travel the world, but I better follow my own dreams.”

Fifty years ago, this conversation would have been jaw-dropping! Unbelievable! Coming of age for its time! And yet today, in a world where women rule anyway and the only thing you need a man to do is… well, nothing, it really just sounds a little silly to me.

Here’s the thing. I totally get that you want to be independent, free to do anything you want, go anywhere you want. But at what point did this mean that you had to cut any sort of romance out of the picture? When did romance lose its fun and just gain a hell of a lot of anchors?

I don’t think you have to be a bitch to be independent. I don’t think that you need to declare that you’re swearing off men because you want a career, or decide that you’re only going to do random hookups or pretend not to care about anyone because you don’t want to end up like Your Friend’s Mom’s Best Friend who got married at 21 and had five kids and now spends her days crying, watching soap operas, and doing laundry.

Being in a relationship or admitting to actually like someone isn’t what makes you uncool. What makes you uncool is when you stay holed up in your room all day Skyping your boyfriend and writing sad emails to your mom when you could be out exploring this beautiful city. Fortunately, the amount of these people is rather limited, so I think you can all stop declaring what awesome bitches you are and instead admit when you actually like someone because guess what? “Liking” is a natural human emotion. Who knew?

Now later on in the conversation, I heard this one:

Girl 3: “We were both so whatever about it, that now me and my guy back at home have been hooking up for like a year and haven’t done anything about it. I’m kind of over the random hookups and I got that out of my system freshmen year, but it would be weird to try for anything with him now.”

Girl 1: “Yeah, I get you. I have been hooking up with this older guy for a long time, but he has already graduated and has a job and I want to live in Chicago, so it’s a little late to try for anything.”

So, now the truth creeps out, just a little bit. What is odd to me is that these “empowered” women have no problem fighting for their careers, but yet they are so willing to let guys who they have come to care about actually walk on them a little bit by making them feel like a random hookup is all they can ask for if they want to have fulfilling lives outside of a serious relationship.

Guess what, ladies? You CAN have it all. The great thing about being an empowered woman in 2012 is that not only can you have a fulfilling career, caring friends, an extraordinary education, and a great family, but you can also have a dude alongside you that also serves as a best friend. A man doesn’t mean staying home and cooking and doing laundry anymore. It means another person, among many, to care about. It doesn’t make you lame or “tied down” or anything other than the person you already were, if you don’t choose to make it that way.

And this exactly qualifies for your time abroad, too. Okay, yes, if your boyfriend is getting pissed you can’t text him when you’re at the Florentine soccer game for one hour, that is a problem. A major problem. But no one ever said that because someone kind of likes you who happens to be 3000 miles away at the moment, you have to stay holed up and be lame. There are lots of secret American girlfriends, all over Florence, who have someone waiting for them at home and can still go out and get just as smashed as you. Trust me.