Category Archives: travel

money in Calcutta

NEWS ITEM: ‘Few takers for 1,000-rupee notes in Kolkata’ (Times of India, 16th August 2011)

The article states:

The city where the cheapest bus ride is five bucks and the base metro fare even cheaper doesn’t have much of an appetite for the ‘big note'[…] It’d rather make do with small change — there is a perennial shortage of coins in Kolkata[…]You would hardly find an ATM in Kolkata that dispenses 1000 rupee notes. “Customers here don’t like getting thousand rupee notes,” said an official of UBI. “Customers are apprehensive about the 1000 note. They fear the notes could be fake,” he added.

I will go one step further. Even 500-rupee notes are not wanted in Calcutta! Rs500 notes (like $10) are considered ‘big notes’ and roundly denied by shopkeepers.

I tried one day as an experiment to pay for things with a 500-rupee note. First I went to a bunch of Barabazaar restaurants. I tried to order Rs20 lassis and pay with a 500. I was turned away at three restaurants.

Next I went to three or four restaurants along Chowringhee. I was flatly turned away at each place as soon as they saw a Rs500 bill come out of my pocket. It is a big disconcerting: India is the sort of place where, in general, everyone is jumping over everyone else to sell you something, anything: but really, all it takes to make a tout go away is a glimpse of a Rs500 note.

Finally, on a whim, I bought a two-litre bottle of water (Rs25) at a Muslim stall near New Market. They made a big production out of it, going on at length about how I was cleaning them out of change, and then emptying a drawer of change, trying to throw in soap, shampoo, and “biscuit” as substitutes for change, but in the end I got my Rs475.

I went to take the metro (where, as the article notes, rides go for about Rs3) and when I got to front of the line I saw a poor fellow waiting there, looking sullen and dejected.

“I need to buy a metro ticket, but they don’t have change!” he cried, waving a bill around in the air. “Do you have change for a 500?”


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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 1: Izmir, Turkey

Here begins a look at some of the many Alliances Françaises in the world. For those who don’t know, the Alliances Françaises are buildings set up all over the world by the French government in order to promote the French language, French culture, and (in my opinion) knowledge and culture in general.

It is sort of my goal to visit all of them. However, I don’t think that’s possible: according to their website, there are well over 1,000 of them. I’ve been to maybe twenty of them, and I highly doubt, for example, I’ll ever make it to the hundred-some in subsaharan Africa any time soon. But when I can, I make it a point to visit them and see what’s up, francophonically speaking.

Usually the AFs (or Centres Culturels, as they are sometimes called) encompass a school building with classrooms, a café (pour mieux diffuser la mode de vie française), a rather impressive library, some sort of hall for performances, a gallery, free toilets, and sometimes a bookstore. My main concern is with the libraries and the free toilets, and also the brochures sitting around and any cultural events that might be taking place.

For those francophiles such as myself, these places are a real treat. They, in the stitled and broken English of a Canadian branch, stretch:

[f]rom the Land of Fire to the Canadian boundaries, from the African continent to Northern Europe, from Asia to Oceania… the Alliances Françaises emerge out of a Francophile dynamics from every culture around the world.

Founded in 1883, Alliance Française’s success is due to the loyalty of a public with deep roots in the French language and francophone culture. The Alliance Française brand is known in 136 countries and has inspired a rich network of over a thousand local associations with a proper legal entity. (source. Don’t they have any English speakers in Canada to proofread?)

I once dragged my father to one, and he didn’t see the point: i.e., there is no American equivalent. For pops, this was a good thing: the entire world, he thinks, is an American cultural center. For example, in Turkey, the Turks go about wearing Mr. T t-shirts while rocking out to Metallica and watching NBA games as they chomp on hamburgers. (In America, by contrast, no-one is going about wearing Mustafa Uğur t-shirts while blasting Tarkan, cheering on Fenerbahçe and chowing down on çiğ köfte.) And you can get Anglophone books, newspapers, etc., anywhere in the world, he boasted triumphantly, while the French have to build special libraries to house the frayed manuscripts of their dying language.

Anyway, I just went to the one in Izmir:

ENTRY: There was a little cat scratching at the front door and trying to get in. I let the cat in and she ran to a food bowl under a desk. There was a woman at a desk who ignored me. This is in marked contrast to the Turkish world around the AF, where you are regularly greeted with iyi günler! hoş geldiniz! buyrun, buyrun!. The French froideur and peur des autres begins at reception!

GALLERY: They were putting in an exhibition that appeared to be B&W photos of rocks in Greece. As it was not open yet, I didn’t see it.

CAFE: Did not appear to be open, but some used tea cups and sugar packets sat on a table. DELF results were posted on the wall.

TOILET: excellent. Filled up my water bottle in the sink as well. Vive la France!

BIBLIOTHEQUE: A man said “Bonjour” as I walked in. He then ignored me, though he became animated when some fellow AF worker came in and offered him a piece of gateau. They had some nice books and magazines. I read “Le Monde Monthly” where they reprint old and outdated articles from years past. I spent five minutes trying to understand the French sense of humour and worrying I’d forgotten how to speak French as I examined two cartoons in the paper. Finally I realized the captions were reversed. Eh ben en effet. They had a lot of CDs and DVDs, and it was cool and air conditioned in 36-degree Izmir. They also had a lot of BDs, with a large space dedicated to Satrapi, and some in Turkish. Top notch!

Overall, a great place for any francophile to while away a hot afternoon in Izmir.

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kumpir street, izmir (a tribute to kumpir, pt. 2)

In part one of my acclaimed tribute to kumpir, the Turkish potato dish, I wrote

Tonight I tried the famous “kumpir” for the first time! This dish is said to be Albanian in origin, but you find it in Istanbul often enough. They give you a baked potato with butter and cheese melted in it, then your choice of about 15 toppings (olives, peas, mushrooms, corn, pickles, beet salad, russian salad, coleslaw, carrots, and a bunch of weird meat-items like sausages), then they pour ketchup and mayonnaise all over it. Revolting and pretty tasty. Costs $4-$5, and one of the very few foods in Turkey suitable for vegetarians.

That was back when I was a kumpir novice. Now I know a little bit more about kumpir, having done my research and some tasting as well. Today I don’t think it’s Albanian at all, though that’s what people told me. A little fact-finding shows a Croat word for potato being krumpir, which is likely where kumpir comes from, I’d say. (Krumpir comes from dialectal German Grumbeer, i.e., Grundbirne: ground-pear). So although it’s true that the potato was introduced to the Ottomans via the Balkans, it seems the Serbs and Croats were thus implicated, not the Albanians. For more information, I point you to a 72-page study in Turkish entitled  MR. KUMPIR DÜNYAYA AÇILDI! TÜRKÇEDE PATATES IÇIN KULLANILAN BIR ISIM: Mr. Kumpir Became Universal! A Name Used for Potato in Turkish (pdf), by Uwe Bläsing.

In Istanbul, we can find kumpir on Istiklal for 6TL or so. However, the famous kumpir alley is in Ortakoy, where you’ll find about two dozen kumpir shacks, each charging a whopping 10TL! Beyond my means.

However, in Izmir, I was excited to find a Kumpir Street where said potato dish could be enjoyed by bourgeois and proletariat alike. Yes, it cost a mere 4.50TL (like $3)! So I made a few trips to this street (1379 Sk., if you’d like to visit yourself).

There are about five or six kumpir shops there. Some offer other things like waffles (?) or chicken nuggets. Most offer kumpir with 7 toppings for 4.50TL. One offers 8 toppings for that price. One offers 7 toppings and a can of Coke for 4.50, but they put the ketchup and mayonnaise behind the counter. As an American, I cannot support attempts by foreign nationals to limit access to the ketchup supply during mealtimes. So I didn’t go to that one.

Fiyorino Kumpir & Fast Food (30A 1379 Sk.) gave a nice kumpir with green olives, pickles, beets, American salad (?), mushrooms, peas, etc. Highly delicious stuff. You get a plastic spoon to eat it with.

A few doors down is Cadde Cafe. The kumpir is essentially the same, though the ambiance is a little different: they have a TV mounted out front that was showing terrible Anglophone pop videos and giving me a headache. About halfway through my kumpir, it switched to a “rockumentary” on Metallica and they played Metallica “One” in full:

Darkness! Imprisoning me!

I did feel better after that.

They also have a little model made of a potato. It is affixed to the counter and named “Sencar”. The long-haired man running the place went to great pains to explain to me that the potato was “orijinal” and that the mouth, etc., had not been carved in any way. I took a photo of it and he said, bemusedly, “Everyone always takes a photo of that!” (I think my Turkish comprehension is improving, look what I understood!)

Three cheers for kumpir.

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another journey by train

It’s getting to be election time here in Turkey, as can be heard by the different political parties driving vans around blasting nationalist and patriotic Euro-dance, usually containing variations on the refrain “Gel, gel, gel, Turkiye!” or some such. I might note that even the Islamist parties are fond of high-energy Euro-dance: the Saadet Partisi presented candidates on the boardwalk here in Izmir the other day, and, after bragging about which party members spoke English, they launched into some patriotic Islamist Euro-dance with a booming male vocal line akin to the Pet Shop Boys that I certainly don’t associate with conservative Islam. (They also finished things off with a videotape of the national anthem, which made everyone in the area immediately stop and freeze, their eyes glazed over as they stared into space for the duration of the song. Even people eating dinner stopped and stood to attention just because some minor political party played a prerecorded national anthem!)

Saadet Parti animals, Izmir

Now I’m no fan of humble simit-seller Erdoğan or the AK Parti, but I’ll note that the AK Parti has as one of its platforms an operation called ‘Hedef (Target) 2023’- his aim is a number of betterments in Turkey by 2023. To this end, you see a number of billboards throughout Turkey with Erdoğan and the various ‘by 2023’ promises: free electronic books for all students, a national car manufacturing industry in Turkey, Turkey as one of the world’s top ten economies. One of Erdoğan’s hedefler is the train system, which is mostly a joy if you have a bit of time and are travelling between train-connected cities.

view from train window, suburbs of Izmir

Here in Izmir I was given a very interesting and colourful booklet at the train station (Hedef 2023: Yenilikçi Demiryolları, Geleceğe Yolculuk, n.d.) that outlined a number of rail projects in the works: 10,000km of high-speed rail tracks, 4,000km of conventional new track, various city/suburban train projects (Marmaray in Istanbul, Egeray in Izmir, Bashkentray in Ankara), station restoration, updated signalization, lines to Baku (via Kars to Tbilisi), Mecca & North Africa (via Aleppo), etc.

I looked at the booklet while going from Izmir to Selçuk, a bit of a tourist trap, but nice enough, and delicious 4TL pide with parsley on demand! The train played music while you got on (Turkish ballads), which I’ve only ever heard before in Morocco (I think I heard it once in India, but it might have been someone’s cell phone. That said, in some regions of India, Indian Railways blasts the garbled and distorted news in two languages into all the cars at about 6am). The stations were all clearly announced in Turkish and Turkish-accented English (good job, Turks, quit paying these foreign women to make prerecorded announcements in Taiwan and wherever else), and all were lit up on LED reader boards.

happy train riders, this morning

It’s not all joy. My ride back to Izmir was standing room only for about the half the trip, and was late by 20 minutes. And the Turkish Railways website makes the Indian Railways site seem user-friendly (hint: make sure you are using Internet Explorer v2.0 with Windows 95 and have a spare half-day).

The real question is why the Islamists and anti-atheists of the AKP (mildly so, but still) are able to build railways and such like there’s no tomorrow, do so well, and create large infrastructure projects. The “can-do” “hop to it” “get ‘er done” Americans would never consider building railways, or any decent infrastructure at all- that’s money that could be given to Israel, Pakistan, global financiers, shady bankers, weapons manufacturers, or used for corporate handouts, police and military pay rises and pensions, bank bailouts, campaign funds, or wholesale giveaways to any number of dubious parties! I’m not sure there are any American structural engineers, in any case; everyone I know has a degree in poetry or medieval Dutch, which doesn’t help much when you need to get somewhere.

Well, that’s my tribute to Turkish engineers, flawed-but-great-to-have Turkish Railways, and 20% teacher discounts (öğretmen indirim!!!).

Selçuk station

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photo time: Tekirdağ

Tekirdağ is not a very remarkable place- its only claim to fame is that a Hungarian nobleman lived there. Not giving a toss one way or the other about Hungarians, and being morally opposed to nobility, I didn’t visit his house (now a Hungarian consulate, presumably dealing with the vital day-to-day matters of an important number of Hungarian nationals living in a small town in Turkey). I’m not sure that there was anything to do in Tekirdağ other than sit in Rüstempaşa Family Cay Garden (100% old men, despite the name) and drink 50krs çay. Even tourist information was stumped: the woman gave me a map of Istanbul and a flyer for a family fun park 12km away.

So, inbetween Rüstempaşa’s and trying to figure out why they call it Tekirdağ (dağ= mountain, but I was told that Turks call calico cats tekir; also, a man I met somewhere introduced me to two stray cats he fed: Pamuk (‘cotton’, a white cat), and Tekir (a grey stripey one)- what all this has to do with the tekir of Tekirdağ I’ve no clue: maybe the same as the washing and ton in Washington), I took a few photos:

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Erik and Dong

The argument over what a Turkish ‘erik’ is continues unabated. I’ve been eating about a kilo a day of them, and I want the world to know. But I tell you, they are not plums! Look at the photo of my half-eaten kilo:

If someone said to you- “Would you like some plums?” and then brought you those, what would you think? You would probably say “Oh, very interesting plums” or “Wait, I thought you said we were having plums”. In other words, they’re nothing like what you and I know as plums. To make matters worse, I looked these up on Turkish Wikipedia under their name, ‘erik‘. It clearly shows a photo of normal plums! That just confuses matters even more!

I also bought a “Dong A” pen today. These Korean beasts we can never find in the U.S., but they have them in Turkey for 1.75TL. Pretty decent pen, and mine in the U.S. recently died.

Did you know, some people go places and buy gifts and souvenirs? Hahahhahah! Long live Dong and erik!

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A trip to the produce market in Edirne.

Friend Furkan (“Boss”) says, of my monetary dispensation:

You really like cheap of everything man, I am thinking about to hire ya as my personal grocery advisor.

Indeed, I enjoy few things more than saving a buck. Or a lira! In the south end of Edirne, in the mythical land of Trakya (i.e., western Turkey), you can find the Edirne produce market, or, as they call it, Edirne Bazaar Center. If you go to a bazaar seeking scents of tea, myrrh, bubbling samovars of mint tea, genies on carpets, and finely-worked mother-of-pearl, you’re going to be bummed, because it’s just a bunch of stalls with a tarp on top. That’s why I call it a produce market rather than a bazaar.

The best thing about this ‘bazaar’ is not the ambiance, sanitary conditions, or free toilets that are locked up with pay toilets installed next to them. No, the best things are the prices. First I saw parsley, four clumps for one lira! Friends, that’s four clumps for like sixty cents. These prices are unheard of elsewhere. In Istanbul you’re paying fifty kurus for one clump!

Let me continue. The erik-berries are selling for unheard-of low, low prices. If you don’t know what erik-berries are, you are not alone. They only have them in Turkey. Actually I have eaten them in Syria too, but they were sweeter. Many Turks insist these small green fruits are called ‘plums’ in English. However, I’ve spoken English my whole life and never called a small, hard, not-juicy, tart little berry a ‘plum’. A plum is purplish, soft, and drippy. An erik is an erik. Anyway, erik-berries were selling for 1 kilo for 1.50TL! Friends, that’s under $1 per kilo. In Istanbul, 1.50TL will get you a small paper bag with 5-6 eriks inside it if you’re lucky. Let’s hear it for Edirne produce market!

I ate an entire kilo of those devilish little berries. I offered some to the one-eyed man at reception in my hotel. He told me “Sag olan” and put his hand on his heart and motioned to his dentures. I offered one to the dude at tourist information. He told me “We have a saying in Turkey, eat too many eriks and your motor will break down” and he rubbed his belly.

Again, I ate the entire kilo of berries. I felt fine. I did burp a few times.

On the way to the market you’ll see a man who repairs and sells bikes. You’ll also see the abandoned Edirne electrical plant, soon to feature in the upcoming dinosaur/time-travel movie Zaman, by director A. Sencar.

The locals just made fun of me for going to the produce market, saying it was for headscarved housewives, not full-grown adult males.

Let’s see some of the cats of Edirne, and a sunset.

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