On the flight to Istanbul last weekend I finished Oleg Steinhauer’s spy novel. The trip gave me over 9 hours of reading time. (5 hours 20 minutes flying west and 3 hours and 40 minutes flying east thanks to the jet stream) I picked up the book in the bargain bin at Barnes & Nobles this summer. Reading novels set in the world of expatriates are always interesting to me; however, spy novels are usually not on my reading table.
The book centers around the wife of the deputy consul at the US Embassy in Budapest. Working in international schools, I’ve spent a lot of time in American embassies around the world. The book is a murder mystery as she tries to find who killed her husband as they were having dinner together in a restaurant. They had recently transferred from Cairo, where most of the action takes place. My former residence of Serbia also is featured in the book. A Serbian spy plays a prominent role in the intricate plot. There are also flashbacks to Serbia on the eve of the start of the Yugoslavian war in the early 90s. The main characters are my age.
It was an entertaining book to read during bouts of insomnia and on the plane. The plot got a little confusing towards the end as there are a lot of characters. My general take away from the lives of spies are there is a lot of deception and lies. It would be tough to live in a world like that, always evaluating information to check for its truthfulness. Some reviews claim he is the next John Le Carre, who was recently criticized by the head of the British Secret Service. My son Owen is considering a career in the foreign service or intelligence. It would be good to have a book that depicts how it is working in the secret service. I would think most of the jobs deal with the analysis of information and not being a spy.
Having lived in Serbia and having spent a lot of time in Vojvodina, I see that he has been to the place. I had to laugh when he mentioned how pleasant the countryside is in the Fruska Gora National Park. We spent many an afternoon having picnics and hikes around one of the monasteries. It was one of our favorite places in Serbia. That is the beauty of Flickr that I can find a photo from those picnics in a couple of clicks. Nadia and Oliver are below – lots of happy memories!
This was my second visit to Turkey, having visited with my family in February of 2014. This time I was here alone on business, for international school meetings. I stayed in the heart of Besiktas, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and many ways, the cultural heart of Istanbul. I loved the proximity to the Bosphorus Strait, the cobblestone streets and the numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. The autumn weather was perfect and I went on a couple of long walks up and down the many hills. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, with a metro population of 15 million. It felt busy walking along the Bosphorus, but the stunning views of palaces, parks and water and most interestingly, the daily life of the citizens of this remarkable city were invigorating.
It was probably the neighborhood, but I saw many more secular Turks than conservative Turks, with younger people wearing Western fashion and no headscarves on the women. This friction has always been a defining feature of Turkey. I sense President Erdogan’s popularity may be waning. My taxi driver to the new airport was quite critical of him, calling him “a thief and dangerous, similar to your president Trump”. I was impressed with the infrastructure and commercial activity in the city and think prosperity has grown in the five years I have been away. However, in speaking with the director of the international school there, he said their enrollment is down because of the recession. One negative about Istanbul is that it felt a bit like Manhattan in that you could not get away from people. Solitude is something that you will not get in Istanbul. Even in the parks, there were people everywhere. It wasn’t Asian crowded, but the traffic noise and many people made it feel hectic.
We took a 3-hour boat cruise the last night going north on the Bosphorus Strait, heading towards the Black Sea. The views of the homes and apartments on the hills reminded me of the Mediterranean. The many palaces and forts on the shores were lit up to provide marvelous views. As a former Istanbul resident told me, “The Bosphorus is the main street of the city and to properly see Istanbul, one must see it from the water.”
I noticed this time the numerous cats that roam the streets and parks. Why so many cats? I guess that they keep the rat population down and they are sacred animals in Islam. They looked well taken care of and were passive and almost affectionate as I walked by. I wonder what their impact is on the birds of the city?
Istanbul is such a historic and picturesque city! I was thinking of all the many people and events that have taken place here, from the Romans and Byzantines, to the Ottomans and even today’s political scene with Erdogan trying to keep power. It was a great place to visit but a bit too much traffic and people for me to want to live. To visit though, a marvelous city with spectacular views, great restaurants, entertaining people watching, etc.
I finished reading Joanna Lillis’s book, “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan”. It is an excellent introduction to the country with a bit of history, a section on the government and stories about individual Kazakhs. Her writing style is engaging and she definitely knows the country well.
It makes me want to visit our neighboring country soon. I didn’t realize that Kazakhstan was so large, almost the same size as Argentina. Like Uzbekistan, it was a former Soviet Republic, but sharing such a long border with Russia, it is more influenced by it. When independence came in the early 90s, Kazakhs were a minority. This has changed over the nearly 30 years as a country. Joanna really knows the country well and there are a lot of perspectives in the book. I loved the story about the villagers living near an old uranium mine. It is unfortunate that the world knows Kazakhstan more for the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen than anything else.
Lillis is now a sanctioned journalist in Uzbekistan and I’ll be following her reporting. I highly recommend the book for those interested in Central Asia.
Mid-September weather in Tashkent has been perfect with temperatures in the 70s F and nights cooling down to the low 60s. We had a nice weekend with the highlight being Oliver’s soccer game. Today Nadia and I went shopping down to the massive Chorsu Bazaar. It always makes me laugh that the vendors are curious about where we are from and how we like Tashkent. Tourists are still new here and we are a novelty. A refreshing change from other parts of the world. Nadia was on a mission for raspberries to make jam. She loves making jam and giving them as gifts. The cost of living is very low here, she bought 4 kilograms of raspberries for $USD 7.
Nadia and I checked out the TIS faculty bands on Saturday night. They were playing at The Temple Pub. Lots of talent on staff and we had a good time with friends.
We were also reminded about the most dangerous part of living in Tashkent, the crazy drivers. We saw the aftermath of a crash around 3:00 PM in the afternoon. There were a lot of police and bystanders at an intersection. There are some drivers here that move at a dangerously high speed, especially through intersections. I would love to get some statistics of the locations and frequency of crashes here.
Finally, I got a nice bicycle ride in on Sunday morning with Matt. I am working on becoming a better cyclist, focusing on technique and cadence. I really love cycling – I could go out for a ride everyday!
Oliver played his first game at the Tashkent International School (TIS) this morning. The TIS Owls lost 0-2 to the British School of Tashkent (BST) in a hard fought game. Oliver came in just as the second half began and while playing defense, his team did not allow a goal. The boys played with much effort and they have a promising season ahead.
Oliver loves soccer and the camaraderie that comes with team sport. He was so excited this morning to put on the Owl uniform for the first time. The junior varsity team has players in grades 8-10 and they play in the Central Asian Sports Conference.
Both the boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams played today, as well as middle school girls volleyball so there were plenty of sports action on campus today. There were quite a few parents and students in attendance and Athletic Director Branden Tobin leads a professional program. I enjoyed soaking up the athletic atmosphere and talking with community members.
Weddings (nikokh-tui in Uzbek) are extravagant affairs in Uzbekistan, with lavish parties and events for two days. They are so expensive that last year the government urged people to limit their spending on weddings. Weddings begin with a morning breakfast plov (pilaf) hosted by the bride’s father.
My driver Ahat invited me to a friend’s morning plov on Friday. This was my second time attending one of these events. It is such an unusual way to start one’s day and I can’t think of an equivalent in America or Europe. I was grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to experience this classic Uzbek experience. This breakfast is only attended by men and the guest list includes relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors and in my case, friends of friends. Attendees were on the older side, which makes sense with a 7:00 AM start traditionally after morning prayers.
Older Uzbek gentlemen often wear the traditional square hat. I noticed three basic types, black with white spiral embroidery, black and blue. They are most often worn on special occasions, but I do see them on a daily basis around the city. I think it is a cool look and Nadia bought the blue style for me at the Chorsu Bazaar yesterday.
There are many reception halls that cater these events around the city. I estimated about 250 men were in attendance on Friday. Upon arrival, the table is covered with fruits, cucumber/tomatoes, pistachios, the ubiquitous Uzbek bread, sweets, etc. It is easy to get full before the main dish arrives, while drinking tea and snacking. An imam gives a sermon, or speech. Ahat said his 10-minute talk was about marriage. After the speech, relatives of the married couple form lines and pass plates of plov to each of the tables. A dish is shared between two people and spoons are used. Guests passed around the cucumbers and tomatoes to add some healthy veggies to the plov. This plov included horse sausage, which I’ve had a couple of times. It is good, but a bit too salty for my taste. The plov was delicious and Ahat and I finished our plate.
Almost immediately after the food is eaten, there is a quick prayer and everyone heads out. Eating and running is acceptable here! I skipped lunch on Friday and had an extra cup of coffee to prevent me from going back to sleep on a full stomach. Thanks to Ahat for the invitation and his friend’s family for showing me hospitality and welcoming me, a stranger, to participate in their big day