Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Istanbul: Final Thoughts

We took full advantage of the great weather in Istanbul by taking a cruise up the Bosphorus Strait to the Asian side of the city. Our Rick Steves guidebook had a good tip for us: take the public ferry from Istanbul rather than hiring a private tour. The ferry only costs 25 Lira ($11.80) for a round-trip. The boat takes you nearly to the edge of the Black Sea, where you stop for lunch in Anadolu Kavagi, an Asian fishing village. It was really nice seeing the major landmarks like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia from the water.

Rumelihisari Fortress


Another big hit for us was the Topkapi Palace, which was home to the Ottoman Sultans for more than 400 years. Make sure to buy a ticket to the Harem too; it was my favorite part. I learned a really interesting fact about the women who made up the harem: the Sultan was not allowed to sleep with them at will. The Sultan had up to four wives, and could choose a couple of "favorites" from the harem. The rest were strictly off-limits.

The palace gardens were beautiful, and the tile work throughout was absolutely stunning. The terrace, with its views of the Bosphorus, was a great place for a quick snack.

I was really surprised how much I enjoyed the food in Turkey. It was extremely vegetarian friendly, and even the simple dishes were bursting with flavor. I loved borek (a baked savory pastry filled with cheese), menemen (a dish similar to shakshuka), and surprisingly the Turkish Delight (known as lokum). I always thought I hated that candy since I associate it with an overpowering floral flavor. It turns out that there are many other flavors of lokum, including strawberry; chocolate pistachio; and pomegranate.

Trust me when I say I sampled pretty much every lokum in the city, and the best one by far was at Hafiz Mustafa 1864. We actually stopped there a few times because their desserts were so delicious.

All-in-all, it was a very successful trip--Zoey's first to Asia!

Read more about our trip to Istanbul:
Exploring Istanbul
Istanbul: Mosques and Markets

Friday, 4 April 2014

Istanbul: Mosques and Markets

I've already told you about two of my favorite things in Istanbul: the people and the hamam, but there is so much to love about the city. Istanbul has more than 3,00 mosques (!), so of course we could only visit a very small fraction of those. But let me tell you, the ones we saw were breathtaking. My favorite was the Süleymaniye.

The courtyard was majestic, and we had such a nice time playing with Zahara in the lush grass. Inside, the mosque is tranquil and cool. The carpet felt nice against my shoe-less feet (everyone must remove their shoes when entering a mosque). I learned a couple of interesting tidbits courtesy of our Rick Steve's guidebook:
  1. The carpet has a subtle design in it that helps organize those who are praying.
  2. The pillars were designed to blend in to the decor--a very different style than the Blue Mosque, whose pillars are obvious. I liked this style better.

Due to a scheduling error on our part, we missed seeing the inside of the Hagia Sofia, but we did get to check out the Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque. The inside is stunning, but it felt very touristy compared to the Süleymaniye. Granted, we were there only a few minutes before the mosque closed for prayer time, but there was a whole tourist infrastructure that didn't exist at the Süleymaniye. It was almost an assembly line for taking off your shoes, giving you a scarf or robe if you needed one and ushering you through the door. Not nearly as peaceful as the Süleymaniye. The tile work is outstanding though, so it is well-worth a visit.

No trip to Istanbul is complete without seeing the chaos of the spice market and grand bazaar. The bazaar is called the oldest shopping mall in the world; it dates back to the 1450s and has more than 3,000 shops. You'll find everything in the bazaar from lanterns, to knick-knacks, to Turkish linens. Dan and I actually bought some towels after I fell in love with the ones at my hamam.

I especially enjoyed the pretty courtyard where we had an amazing meal; the street filled with more gold than I've ever seen in my life; and the alley filled with silver-smiths at work.

As busy as the grand bazaar was, it was nothing compared to our first visit to the spice market. Unlike Dan, crowds never really bother me. However, this was over-the-top. I couldn't move on my own; I was simply carried away by the tides of people. Don't take my word for it. Check out this video Dan took. It wouldn't have been so bad, but I was constantly worried about people elbowing Zahara in the head. Fortunately, we went back another day and it was much less crowded.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I'll tell you about our Bosphorus cruise, the Topkapi Palace, and my surprising love of Turkish Delights.

Read more about our trip to Istanbul:
Exploring Istanbul
Istanbul: Final Thoughts

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

British Mother's Day

Last weekend, in addition to finally changing our clocks forward, England celebrated Mother's Day. Though Dan made it very clear that we are American, and therefore ineligible to celebrate*, I managed to sneak in some merriment thanks to my yoga mummy friends.

We all gathered on the Monday after Mother's Day to swap gifts, drink tea and play with our little ones. It's the first Mother's Day for all of us, and it is remarkable to think how much our babies have all grown in this year. I met these women while we were all pregnant, so I have literally known these kids since the day they were born. Now, watching them all interact with each other is such a special treat.

Though we'll be celebrating "real" Mother's Day (as Dan says) in May, it was nice to take part in another British tradition before we leave here. Whether you celebrate this day or any day, happy Mother's Day!

*In fairness to Dan, he did make me an absolutely wonderful card with pictures from each of Zoey's nine months of life. It made me cry happy tears.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Exploring Istanbul

Last week we fulfilled one of my life-long dreams and went to Istanbul. The mix of ancient and modern; sea and land; Europe and Asia--I just couldn't wait to see it in person. It did not disappoint.

We spent a long weekend there, and it was just the right amount of time. I wish we had time to explore more of Turkey, but I'll just have to come back to see Cappadocia and Ephesus. Traveling with an almost-nine-month-old means going at a much slower pace than we're used to, but I am actually really enjoying it. We get more opportunities to mingle with locals who can't seem to resist Zahara's charms.

Seriously, I don't know what it is about Turks, but they LOVED Zahara. Turkish men were especially fond of her. I've never seen anything like it. Men would pinch her cheeks and make kissing noises. Twice at a restaurant, people actually lifted her out of our arms and kissed her before passing her around the table. One man even gave us money! It was only 5 lira, but he insisted it was for good luck.

We got so lucky with great weather. We stayed near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and walked pretty much everywhere. I was surprised at how big the whole city of Istanbul is, but most of the big tourist attractions are located pretty centrally.

I'll tell you more about the big sights in my next posts, but first let me tell you about one of the best experiences I've had in a long time: an authentic hamam (Turkish bath). Dan and I researched places in advance and made bookings at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami. This establishment is very traditional; men and women bathe separately. This actually worked out well since one of us was able to watch Zahara while the other bathed.

From the moment I walked in the door I was instantly transported to a state of pure zen. I was given some quince juice (so good!), a towel and some slippers. The bath was a gorgeous marble room with stunning skylights. I could have spent all day laying on the giant heated marble slab. I really enjoyed the whole process of washing, scrubbing and massaging.

Lobby [source]

My favorite part was when my lady grabbed the clean rag from the soap bucket, swung it around a few times and then wrung it out on top of me creating a giant bubble bath! It's hard to imagine, but I was covered head to toe in bubbles!

Steam Room [source]


I spent around two hours being pampered while Dan hung out with Zoey in town. He had his turn the next night when the bath opened for men. There's a Turkish Bath in Harrogate that I have yet to explore. Have you been there? Was it a similar experience?

I'll be back soon with more Istanbul highlights!

Read more about our trip to Istanbul:
Istanbul: Mosques and Markets
Istanbul: Final Thoughts

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Dear Zahara: 9 Months

Dear Zahara,

Happy nine month birthday! Thanks for another great month! You are such a happy baby, constantly smiling and cooing.

You are really showing your personality now and are developing likes and dislikes. You are the happiest when you are surrounded by people; you thrive on the attention of others. The more people smile at you, the more you laugh and clap back at them. It's infectious. You can be in the middle of a tantrum, and if someone comes over and smiles at you, you stop crying and start cooing. It's ridiculous.

Reading is one of our favorite activities. We've read the Gruffalo so often that we can say it by heart now. You love clapping along to music and when you feel proud of yourself. You learned how to wave last week. Somehow living in England has rubbed off on you because you wave like the Queen. Ha!

You are constantly on the move chasing after the kitties, grabbing the TV wires or trying to crawl into the fireplace. Mummy and daddy have to keep a close eye on you. Especially now that you started pulling up on furniture. It won't be long before you are walking.

We're happy you're such an adventurous eater. There really isn't anything you've turned down. Your current favorites are fish, bananas and clementines. You literally start squealing when you see the clementine and we can't get it to you fast enough. But you've eaten everything from raw mackerel (in the airport in Amsterdam) to pickled ginger (at a make-your-own-sushi night) to curried chicken.

We love you so much and can't wait to see what the next month brings. 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Chalkboard Teapot

Can you believe that I've been living in England (aka the land of tea) for more than two years, and until this weekend didn't have a teapot? For the amount of tea that I drink, and how often I host people at my house, that's ridiculous. Luckily, I found this beauty at my local thrift shop for only £5! What a steal! 

It's a great size--it can probably fit four cups--but it was a little boring, so I turned to Pinterest for some inspiration. To the surprise of no one, I fell in love with this chalkboard paint version. I can't help it. I may have a problem.

This is such an easy project that anyone can do it! It really takes no skill and no time. I'm a big fan of those kinds of projects lately. All you need is a plain teapot and some chalkboard paint meant for ceramics. I'm still using this pot that I bought nearly two years ago--a little goes a long way.    

Adorable, right? I made a template for my tea bag using scrap paper, taped it on the pot and traced around it with the paint. Once I had my outline, I painted a little circle at the top of the bag, and then filled in the rest. I added a string and painted around the rim, mimicking my inspiration photo.

I followed the instructions on the paint jar and, after 24 hours of drying, I baked my teapot in the oven at 300F for 35 minutes. Then I rubbed a piece of chalk over the paint to cure it. That's an important step because it prevents the chalk from leaving permanent marks. I missed it when I made my cheese plate, and honestly, it drives me crazy.

That's it! With a few minutes of time and a couple of bucks, I've now got the cutest teapot in the land!

Love chalkboard paint projects as much as I do? Check out some of my other ones:
Cheese Platters
Making Tea Time Pretty
Easy Upgrade
Baby, It's Cold Outside                                                                                                                                                                              

Monday, 10 March 2014

DIY Nursery Mobile

A million years ago I shared Zahara's nursery with you. My favorite thing about the room, aside from all the bright colors, is that most of the decorations are homemade. From the fabric mobile, to the cardboard "Z," to the Ikea-hacked bookshelves, I love that Zahara is surrounded by things made by the people who love her.

The mobile was a really simple project. It took me a while to do it, but only because I waited until after Zahara was born to begin. All told, you could probably complete this project in a couple of hours if you aren't trying to keep a tiny human alive. 

I found my original inspiration from Pinterest, of course. I tweaked the design to better fit my needs though. I made the ribbons shorter to accommodate the fun string ball I found for a couple of bucks at a thrift store. Dan was the one who recommended (and then implemented) hanging the mobile below the ball using dental floss. So smart!

Here's what you'll need to make you're own mobile:
  • Fabric
  • Ribbon
  • Embroidery hoop (discard the part with the screw)
  • Paint
  • Hot glue gun
  • Heat'n Bond (I used this one)
  • Iron
  • Sewing machine or needle and thread

The first thing I did was paint my embroidery hoop using some purple shiny paint leftover from this project. To paint all the way around the circle, I used needle-nosed pliers to hold the hoop as I painted. I propped it up against the top of a cardboard box to dry.

I wanted my mobile to have six ribbon strings with four fabric circles on each one, for a total of 24 finished circles. That meant I needed enough fabric to make 48 circles, so that each had a front and a back.

I traced 24 circles onto the paper side of the Heat'n Bond using a drinking glass as my template, and cut each circle out. 

I ironed one Heat'n Bond circle onto the wrong side of my fabric. Then I cut the excess fabric to leave a bonded circle. This was one half of my first circle.

I used the drinking glass again to trace and cut another circle from the same fabric. This was the other half of my circle. Repeat for a total of 24 circles.

24 circles: 1 side is plain fabric, the other side is fabric and Heat'n Bond

Next, I cut six equal strips of ribbon, leaving enough extra to attach to the embroidery hoop. I pined the circles where I thought they looked best--roughly symmetrical with the bottoms all aligned.

Once the circles were pinned where I wanted them, I peeled the backing off the Heat'n Bond and ironed the two pieces of the circle together with the ribbon between them. I added a couple stitches to the middle of each circle to keep them in place. I used a sewing machine, but you could hand sew this.

The last step was attaching the ribbon to the embroidery hoop with a hot glue gun. I just made a little loop and glued the ribbon to itself.

It sounds more complicated than it was. It is a pretty easy project that makes a huge impact. I love it, and more importantly, so does Zahara! She loves looking at the bright colors and the way the fabric moves.