“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde



Cappadocia – the Tours


I’d like to preface this article by saying that while it may sound like I am complaining, I’m really not. I just like to point out the hilarious little tidbits that make travel an absurd activity sometimes.

As it happens, we were – as a corollary to our three night hotel stay – entitled to join two free full-day tours in the Cappadocia (or Cappadocia?) region.

It’s one heck of a big region, too.

When I say I’m not complaining, I really do mean it – our ridiculously large, though largely dysfunctional, cave room cost us a total of 25 Euros per night, including breakfast. So the two of us spent 75 Euros all up, in return receiving the three nights’ accommodation, three buffet breakfasts (they were terrible, but still…) and two tours the going rate for which, we discovered today, is 35 and 40 Euros each (respectively).

So, in essence, either we paid for the hotel and the tours were free, or we paid for the tours and the hotel was free. Either way, it’s a good deal piled upon an incredible room rate. So needless to say, they weren’t making a huge sum of money off us. Which might go some way to explaining their general indifference to our comfort and enjoyment, but probably not. More likely, they really just didn’t give a damn.

The tours are very attractively named; the first tour we joined was the ‘blue’ tour. This tour lasted from 9AM until 7.30PM and took us to a wide variety of destinations, from eight stories deep in an underground city (very awesome) to a ceramics workshop (zzzzzzzz) with an untold number of opportunities afforded to buy useless junk along the way.

In truth, other than the underground city (the awesomeness of which one cannot overstate) the highlight of the tour was the sheer inanity of it; the absurdity of the situations and places in which we found ourselves throughout the day.

On the one hand, we had the participants; there were the stereotypical older Australians on a major retirement tour of Turkey, but it was the two Turkish couples who really provided the day’s entertainment. The first, I will term the grumpy couple; he, weedy looking quiet one, she the grouchy superior one. Watching the all day, presumably complaining about everything in Turkish and happy about nothing, he taking his cues from her, was a spectacle.

The second couple, though, provided the real soap opera entertainment. Obviously, everything we observed was based on inference, but what we got was that she (’curly hair’) held some kind of ire towards he (’people pleaser’). As a result, the same pattern kept repeating throughout the day; we’d all stop somewhere, the three of us would banter among ourselves about the junk they were trying to shill to us, then we’d head back outside and wait by the bus. In the meantime, curly hair and people pleaser would emerge last, him gingerly replacing his wallet to his pant pocket; she, grasping a shopping bag containing their most recent unnecessary acquisition.

When we stopped in the town of Goreme for an hour (which, incidentally, is the town in which we presently find ourselves staying), they were also the only couple to take up the offer of an hour’s hire of a 4 wheeler motorbike for a mere 70 Lira.

I don’t know what he did to you, curly hair, but if you keep denying him the attention he craves, the sky is the limit for gifts you could extract. What a chump.

The tour itself wasn’t what I would call bad – it’s just that it wasn’t very good. Notwithstanding the frequent stoppages for opportunities to make purchase of carved stone, jewelry, ceramics, wine, lunch, Turkish Delight, etc. – no doubt, each with its inherent kickback to the tour operators – this really was less of a tour and more of a shuttle bus between tourist attractions, with a couple of salient facts to describe what we were looking at or experiencing. On the detail, they were very light.

In fact, our guide’s most commonly used phrase of the day was “this wouldn’t mean anything to you” – which, in essence, meant, “we learn about this period of history in Turkey, so these guys <the Turks on our tour> understand it, but since you don’t know who or where or what these specific people, places or things were, I’m not going to bother to explain it to you, but take my word for it that it’s worth seeing”.

To be fair, a lot of what we were seeing was insanely spectacular, but I am not going to credit the tour company for that; more likely, the centuries of digging that some hardcore Byzantine dudes got themselves stuck into.

I think Mel hit the nail on the head when she said: “maybe there is something to be said for actually paying for a tour”. On the other hand, who on earth knows? It might have been no different; it was a tour company, after all.

As for the locations we were taken to on the first day, there was a lot of driving, punctuated by a number of short stops. The underground city at the start was incredible; a network of tunnels and underground rooms that went down 15 floors and at one time held up to 1500 people – all underground, sometimes for months at a time while under siege from above. And I thought I was pale now; after 3 months in the dark I would truly be the invisible man.

But in truth, there’s no way I’d be tough enough to survive that – I mean, that is just crazy. The creepiness high point of the tour was at the bottom level we were permitted to visit (the eighth), where there was a sign that said simply “Graves”. Out guide went to pains to point out that no, it wasn’t actually a grave site, but rather a morgue – where they would store the bodies after they died.

Well, we went back there to the little chamber and of course my anxious brain started throwing up scenarios of earthquakes and stone wall collapses, where we were stuck in the morgue with 4500 year old spirits of dead people and no escape.

I’m not a claustrophobic person, but I can really see how a person could be – that place was amazing, but creepy.

Two noteworthy facts that I do recall from our tour (our guide was much stronger on this element of the tour than the others) were that there is a tunnel, which he showed us, that extends nine kilometers to another underground city and which can only fit through by crawling. I cannot imagine the trauma that would set off if I tried to do that on my own. Secondly, though, how in the hell did these guys know where to go in order to get their tunnel to meet up with the other city, 4 millenniums ago? [nb: I wanted to type ‘millennia’ but it’s being marked as incorrectly spelled; any Latin speakers out there please feel free to correct me here]

The second fact was how the tunnels were found; not only completely abandoned of people and animals, but devoid of any artifacts, tools; basically any sign that people had once lived there. It’s a heck of a mystery.

Yes, the underground city did leave an impression upon us. Apparently, these cities continue to be found once in a while; recently, one was discovered that descends 25 levels below the ground; 10 more than our paltry city. But, as the Australian in me would say: bugger that for a joke.

There were some other places we went, but they haven’t left much of an impression. There was some ‘traditional’ Turkish stuff; like watching a guy make a pot on a pottery wheel, watching another guy make an egg out of a rock… Impressive skills, to be sure, but it didn’t have the desired effect on our group, with ‘people pleaser’ time and again the only person to buy anything.

I was tempted to tell these guys that not only were we avowed minimalists, but we don’t actually have a place where we’re living – we are, technically, homeless – but in a region with thousands of abandoned (perfectly inhabitable) caves I thought they would have trouble comprehending the concept.

There were, no doubt, some other land features and cave like structures that we visited along the way but, based on the fact that I can’t readily recall them I’m happy to determine that few were that memorable. In a place where every direction you look is just spectacular, you very quickly become very hard to impress.

Well, I do.

One hilarious high point occurred much later in the day when, after our visit to the winery for a ‘free’ wine tasting (which actually cost 6 Euro, so of course we didn’t partake – we know what wine tastes like and, coming from Germany, strangely didn’t feel the need to try Turkish wine), we headed down the hill to the Turkey-famous ‘Stone House’ or ‘Stone Lodge’ maybe – ‘Stone’ something, anyhow.

We were reliably informed, both by out tour guide’s words, and the fact that all the Turkish people on our tour immediately and unquestioningly paid money to enter, that this place is something of a cultural relic in Turkey, as the centerpiece of a soap opera in the 1970s.

How do I know the decade? I’m glad you asked. It wasn’t due to our tour guide’s superior knowledge; that much is for sure. No, his explanation went something like: “This is the famous stone house, it probably means nothing to you but was in a Turkish movie”. Naturally, I decided to be polite and demonstrate interest, so I asked “what’s the name of the movie?” to which he replied “soap opera”.

No, it was when we took a little walk downhill into the otherwise extremely depressing town and encountered a statue – nee, a monument to this giant of Turkish popular culture. The monument, in three parts (each more ridiculous than the last) was, in essence, a stonemason’s equivalent of the ending credits of a TV show. On one, a list of the cast, on the second, a list of the crew – and in the center, a larger piece with the name of the show/movie (who knows which?) and the logos of the companies responsible for its production.

As a joke, I took a picture of Brett posing at the statue in awe of its amazement. The locals nearby, however, did not share our sense of humor as they, one after another, lined up to repeat the display with the same sense of dour respect one might reserve for a meeting with a revered statesman. From our perspective, of course, not understanding the situation at all, we found the whole scene just hilarious.

Hilarious, but not appalling. No, that mantle is reserved for our launch destination. Mel and I have travelled a lot – separately as well as together – and never have we seen such a ridiculous, contrived, scene as the restaurant to which we were taken for lunch – and I am including our week in North Korea in that statement.

Here’s the scene: Our little tour bus pulls up to an ornate door, flanked by two stone lions, cut into the side of a hill. We are dwarfed on every side by much larger tour buses, funneling hapless tourists in and out at an extremely high frequency. You disembark and enter the restaurant; it’s one long hallway, with bathrooms and kitchens and anterooms sprouting off either side; you walk down the hallway, occasionally passing one of the establishment’s many matador-themed staff member, until you pass through an archway into a tackily ornate amphitheater.

The amphitheater is divided into five sections, each with around 12 rows and an aisle down the center. All of the seats face inward, with low tables upon which the food is served and eaten. In the center, on the ground, a solitary figure site, playing a traditional selection of acoustic guitar melodies while the assembled masses watch awkwardly while stuffing their faces with imitation second-grade mass-produced Turkish ‘cuisine’.

The sights, the sounds, the smells – they were abhorrent. Moreover, the menu options were identical to every other damned eating selection we’d been given in this part of the country. I understand ‘traditional’ eating and I love Turkish food, but for the love of god – there is more to Turkish food than bread, meat and rice!

The situation was even worse for Brett, as the vegetarian options once more approximated zero. When he intimated he might prefer to sit this round out, rather than break his 14 year vegan streak, he was offered chicken or fish as an alternative to the lamb. Benevolent? You bet.

In the end, we jointly and independently decided that this wasn’t our scene, so we decided to cross a field and climb through some caves instead. Evidently, an Australian couple form our group (the more intrepid couple) had made the same call, so joined us on our mini-expedition. Mel and I ate chips and Snickers bars for lunch, which, as it turns out, was a pretty delicious alternative to bland ‘one size fits all’ tourist fare.

It was a first for me though; I‘d never before encountered a restaurant that catered not only primarily, but solely to bus tour groups. What a smart business idea; it got our gears turning, that is for sure.

On our way back in the afternoon, we took a detour and were given 15 minutes to photograph a rock that looks like a camel.

The second tour:

In case it was possible to outdo the first, we decided to give their second tour a go on the following day (in truth, it was solely on the recommendation of others on our first tour that we bothered to go at all. Much better, they promised – and no souvenir stops.

To be fair, they delivered on this promise. Though, again, this had next to nothing to do with the quality of the tour guiding and everything to do with the fact that we were able to freely explore some extremely special and historically significant places.

The morning started with a trek through a spectacular valley (by one, very specific measure, which we were told has something to do with the width at the bottom, it’s number two in the world behind the Grand Canyon), into the sides of which are cut many caves and tunnels – and over 150 churches. That was a really cool experience and yet another reminder of just how insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.

In the middle of the valley we were allowed 20 minutes to stop for tea by the river, hanging with the ducks and rabbits. That says it all, really; it was a quacking nice spot.

Lunch, at the end of the valley, was yet another offering of the same variety; lentil soup, salad, meat, rice, fruit… We couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t. So we ordered chips instead, and boy did we ever get more than we bargained for there. When they arrived, they were – I can’t think of a better way to describe this – submerged – in oil. I was grateful they’d brought me an extra plate, because it allowed me to transfer the chips onto it, above a stack of paper towels, in an effort to absorb some of the residue.

The resulting pool on the original plate could have powered Mr. Schwarzenegger’s Bio-Humvee for a couple of laps of Talladega; it was that excessive.

You might think that was the highlight, but no – the best was yet to come! For, the next stop, was actually spectacular; a ‘cathedral’ carved into the side of a mountain that once formed part of the Silk Road. From the street level, it extended far up a series of rock hills and comprised several different areas; lodging, chapels, stables for the traveling caravans, kitchens… everything the ancient Caravan driver needs for a comfortable home away from home, carved out of the rock.

And, apparently, as a component of the Ottomans’ commitment to the attraction of tourism and trade, all offered at no charge to weary ancient traveler.

This spot was the highlight of the whole leg of the trip so far; being able to climb all over the hills and explore the vast network of chambers and tunnels, all the while taking lots of (I’m sure what will turn out to be very average) photos of the surrounding vistas.

The whole experience was, in two words, freaking awesome.

There was one last stop for the day, at another underground city. This one, our guide went to pains to explain no fewer than seventeen times, was for animals – not humans. It was pretty cool, but as it existed only one level below ground, we were less impressed than what we’ve seen before. They really should have led with this one and crescendoed out, but who am I to tell them how to run their tours?

After all, the first day did end up with the came-looking rock; how could you possibly end on a higher note?

Returning to our hotel by 4.30, I have to admit, this tour was a million times better than the first day.

Overall, it’s hard to value the tours because we wouldn’t have been able to find some of these places on our own. In that sense, they were completely indispensable. In a more specific sense, you could say the tours were excellent, despite the efforts – or otherwise – of our faux-expert guides. Would I go back? Yes – you get the sense there’s so much more to see. But not for a while; I’ve been through so many caves in the last few days that I’m kind of caving a change of scene.

Ho, ho, ho.


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Turkey, the Third Impression


Oh, how I am confused about this country.

I can’t fit it into a single, workable framework. I have tried really hard, but I can’t.

I’m going to use our experiences of last two days as an analogue that is, I am certain, nor representative of the whole country, nor the experience of many who have come before us – and will come after.

Nonetheless, it is what I have to work with, so here we go.

After the incident I previously wrote about, with the taxi driver determined to get us into his smoky cab no matter what, our transfer did show up and the drive to the airport was unbelievably smooth.

Indeed, the one and a half our drive for which they’d budgeted was over in less than 35 minutes.

In itself, this sheer inability to forecast traffic conditions has to be a huge brake on Istanbul’s economy, but that’s perhaps an issue for another day.

We made it through the airport and onto the plane, where we, and the fifty or so people behind us, were summarily held up by a self-righteous young woman trying to stuff an oversized bag into a regular sized overhead compartment.

Obviously sensing not only the futility of the endeavor, but the ire of the passengers watching the spectacle, the flight purser barged past Mel and I, yelling something at her in Turkish which I can only infer went along the lines of “please let me help you with that [you are holding up the departure of this flight, you idiot]”.

The young lady took serious umbrage at his insistence to help, giving him dirty looks and muttering under her breath at the serious and unforgivable injustice of having her bag sit one aisle behind her above somebody else.

The flight, otherwise pleasant enough, ended with a mad rush to the front for disembarkation beyond that which I’ve even seen on AirAsia flights (and I’ve been on a lot of those).

Seemingly drawn by some mystical force, as soon as the seat belt light turned off the aisle was full from those who had jumped up and rushed forward to occupy any available space. And then, exercising a unique style of etiquette, the plane emptied from the back as those at the front were not allowed to enter the aisle, lest they should delay the next person’s exit by a few milliseconds.

It was an absurd spectacle, made even more so by the fact that those same people were also the ones who – when we did ultimately make it out of our seats in row 4 – huddled around the luggage belt, as though doing so would will their bags to come out earlier than everybody else’s.

On a side note, whenever we do fly in Asia we are allocated seats at the very back of the plane. I always pretend to be flattered by this, as they obviously care for my safety, thus placing me in the part of the plane where I am statistically most likely to survive a catastrophic incident. Naturally, it has nothing to do with wanting to shove all the whiteys to the back where we won’t upset the order of things.

So it was with surprise that on this flight we found ourselves in row 4 – and Brett, our traveling buddy, in row 3 – until we were safely on the tarmac; then, it made complete sense.

Our bags emerged early, so I had to politely carve a path through the vainly waiting masses to retrieve them, before we headed out to find our transfer.

We’d been informed beforehand that our guy would be holding a sign with my name on it – which we were hopeful would make this part of the journey smoother than our previous transfers. At 50 Euros, we’d definitely paid for it.

But alas, when we did ultimately emerge, our man was nowhere to be seen.

There were a number of signs, but most of them bore extremely Turkish names, which were definitely not for us.

But that didn’t stop a couple of them, who were quite insistent we become the people on their signs, presumably because of all the places we’d want to end up in the five major cities around here, we’d be heading the same place he is. And to hell with the guys he was actually dispatched to collect.

One driver, in particular, was repeatedly insisting that we travel with him, despite the fact that I’d already told him that he was looking for somebody else. The third time he approached, insisting that we look again at his sign and, presumably, agree that we adopt those personas, I felt compelled to tell him that not only was he not looking for us, but believe it or not, I am capable of recognizing my own name. But thanks for the vote of confidence in my cognitive abilities.

I’m just perplexed. Taking it to its logical conclusion, we say “sure, that’s good enough”, he takes us to a hotel 200km away from where we’re booked, the people he’s supposed to pick up are stranded at the airport not knowing what on earth happened, but ruing the fact that they had been so organized, yes so let down. Then, presumably, it comes back on him a little bit for not verifying that we are who he told us to be…I don’t see an upside.

After the crowd thinned out a bit, maybe 15 minutes later, our guy finally appeared, with the telltale sign that actually displayed my name, and not some approximate Turkish equivalent.

We walked across to the car park, where we waited while he fetched his pimped-out mid-1990s Toyota Camry, with a full faux carbon fiber roof – and, as seems to be the done thing in Turkey – no seat belts.

So we scream out of there, accelerating up to 110km at the breakneck speed of about 37 seconds onto the highway. The drive itself is fascinating and spectacular – the landscape of Cappadocia is like nothing else in the world. The driving, on the other hand, is not so stunning.

But we didn’t die, despite the heavy rain, so that’s nice.

Our driver spoke zero English, so the conversation in the car was minimal; Mel slept, Brett watched a second-rate zombie movie in the front. And we drove – and drove – and drove.

At one point, we suspect we missed an important turn. I’m no detective, but three factors lead me to this conclusion:

– One, we passed a bit highway sign, at which point the driver braked hard, squinted at the sign, his face belying a significant amount of confusion, before speeding up again and continuing on.

– Two, the drive Google Maps had budgeted at one hour, 59 minutes clocked in at closer to two and a half hours, despite driving about Google’s anticipated speeds for, well, the entire journey.

– Three, about two hours into the drive, our guy pulled into a supermarket car park, ran in and came out with a can of iced tea and a chocolate bar for each of us. A lovely gesture, to be sure. But could it not have also been hush money? I’ll leave that up to you to decide…

So we did make it to our hotel without incident, where we were swarmed by helpers and taken to check in.

This is where our confusion really started.

The check-in staff started tallying up the cost of our stay in Euros, adding the transfer and then asking if we’d like to pay now or after the stay.

We’d booked through Booking.com – I didn’t think we had to deal with that messiness, but in any case have you ever paid for your room at reception before seeing it? That struck me as strange. Not that we had much of a choice of where to stay in any case; this is one hell of a tiny town. But I’ll get to that.

We elected to pay at the conclusion of our stay.

The hotel itself is as impressive as it is unique; the well-appointed rooms ancient caves carved out of the rock, like so much of the landscape around us. We have a front porch with a spectacular view across the valley and it’s really peaceful and quiet.

The location, in this sense, is absolutely priceless.

The furnishings are comfortable, the natural insulation is, of course, excellent and the rooms are clean.

The hard stuff they do really well – the infrastructure, I mean, people literally carved holes in a rock face to create this place. Safe to say, that’s one hard part. They then attracted guests here from all over the world, that’s hard as well.

But the easy stuff is where they chronically, and sadly, fall down.

For one, you can’t drink the water here but no bottled water is supplied. That’s unusual, but not a huge deal; we’d typically prefer to boil our own anyway, since it’s saving the plastic. Here, we’re really struggling to do that because we’ve got a two cup kettle that we need to wait to cool down before we can half-fill one bottle.

There is (allegedly) Wi-Fi in the rooms, but the signal is so weak that it’s completely unusable. There are few surfaces through which Wi-Fi signals do not travel well, and rock is most certainly one of them. So despite the fact that we’re four meters from a router we need to go outside to connect to the internet. Presumably they would know this, but choose to do nothing about it, despite the fact that it would be relatively easy to place a router in each room (there aren’t many).

The water is warm, but does not get hot enough for a comfortable shower; a big letdown, when you’re essentially bathing in a massive stone bathroom sarcophagus with no shower curtain. You really want that water to be warm and welcoming.

We have a spa bath, but the tap doesn’t extend far enough from the wall to actually deposit water in the tub. Instead, it fires directly onto the flat ledge, where the seal is worn away such that the water then trails back down the wall, under the bath and through the other side, leaving a torrent of water that flows diagonally across the bathroom floor and pools around behind the toilet.

Yesterday, I filled the bath for Mel with the handheld shower head, and made it warm enough by boiling our puny ass kettle four times and adding that in. Do they really think I care less about that than I do about the 20-odd teabags they left in our room when we arrived, or the lovely, but extremely bizarre, fruit platter we received at about 9.30pm, after we’d already brushed our teeth?

It seems to mostly boil down to an emphasis on the wrong things; by focusing so much on hard, but ultimately unimportant, things, they fail to grasp the easier, but more highly valued (or at least more annoying when they aren’t done right) things. Terrible sentence structure, but you get my drift.

For instance, when we were being shown to our rooms Brett was taken into no fewer than 4 rooms and told he could pick any of them. They were all similar and he didn’t really care which they put him in.

So much effort on something that matters zero, but then today they didn’t bother to service either of our rooms; in our books, far more important – considering the towels are not drying in this weather.

I haven’t even mentioned the main instigator of this particular element of the rant; the restaurants.

Oh, the restaurants.

So we are staying in what essentially boils down to a rambling complex of hotels, all run by the same people, each quite small and sharing some facilities, like the reception and two restaurants. One restaurant has a ‘buffet style’ setup, while the other, near our room, is ‘a la carte’.

Upon our arrival yesterday, we were quite exhausted – as you might imagine, after the very early morning and the very interesting drive. So we decided to try out the close restaurant. We were the only guests there at this time, about 12.30pm and we were met before long by a waiter with a workable command of English.

Usually, our issue is with our allergies and the confusion that creates for people; not so in this case. In this case, what we encountered was, quite simply, a good old-fashioned display of gross incompetence.

We were given 10 set menus from which to order, each comprising a soup, main, salad, dessert and one or two side dishes. Mel and I picked one each. Brett, who has been suffering heavily as a vegan in this country, had to settle for a salad (that’s cucumber, lettuce and tomato – neat) and a beer.

So we waited, and waited, and waited.

Eventually, after more than an hour, we received our salads.

The meal continued at this pace until finally, more than two hours after arriving, we managed to get out of there. The food was pretty good, but one wonders how on earth a two hour window could be deemed ok, when you are the only ones in the restaurant.

And Brett never did get his beer, either.

It’s perplexing; there were at least 4 people working.

I almost forgot the cats! There is a family of three stray cats that just hangs around, begging you for food and then jumping up on the tables once guests leave to pick at scraps. Apparently, at this hotel, that’s cool.

Perhaps needless to say, after that particular experience, we decided we’d give that place a miss from then on.

Come dinner time, Brett and I decided to explore the town a little – find something to eat and bring something back for Mel. Good plan.

So we roamed up and down the street; for a small town, they have a ridiculous number of convenience stores – more ridiculous when you consider the fact that they all sell the same stuff (we checked – it’s very hard to find anything resembling nutritious food as a vegan here).

Brett having given up on warm food and resigned himself to an evening of pretzels and nuts, I entered what looked to be the most hygienic restaurant in town (by far), assuming I’d be able to get a cheap take away meal – the front window certainly indicated this would be a possibility, advertising meals for 5 Lira ($2).

Of course, once I received my order and went up to pay, 5 Lira had magically expanded into 14 Lira. I don’t mind a little bit of a tourist tax sometimes (ok, I totally resent it), but this smacked of exploitation. But what could I do? We had to eat something. So, of course, I grudgingly paid and again, I determined that I wouldn’t go back.

So it was that tonight, we decided to go for the second hotel option – the buffet restaurant. For the same price (9 Euros), we are allegedly entitled to a delicious spread of food that is suitable to meat eaters and vegans alike.

So you might imagine our abject disappointment when we stepped off our tour bus after a very long day exploring (I’ll get to that) only to discover the restaurant had decided not to open.

Even the hotel staff who had taken us on the tour seemed confused; that is not a good sign when you’re meant to be running a business.

But they didn’t care. They just said “try the other restaurant”.

You know, the cat dungeon.

So, I am disappointed and ashamed to admit, we did exactly that – went back to give the ‘a la carte’ restaurant another chance – one that is chronically did not deserve.

And we were not disappointed.

By that, I mean we were extremely disappointed; so much so that we are hoping that the pathetic level of organization among the staff there will result in the food not making its way onto our bill. We will see.

I didn’t think it was possible for the service to eclipse the experience of last time in just how unbelievably bad it was, but they managed to surprise us all – and then some.

To begin with, I’d like to reiterate that the restaurant, which comprises one small room, with one external door, has a cat problem. Art any one time, between two and four cats have the run of the place – meowing and jumping and generally irritating anyone who doesn’t have a misguided (and frankly sick) appreciation for stray cats at the dinner table.

I don’t blame the staff for the existence of the cats, but it would have been nice if they’d made some attempt at shooing those annoying, disease-ridden rests out of there. But apparently it’s cool to have feral animals doing whatever the hell they want inside your restaurant here.

But that’s not even the biggest problem.

No, the biggest problem was that – and we didn’t believe this was possible – the service actually eclipsed the first visit in just how abysmal it was. This was a demonstration of incompetence beyond comprehension.

I’d like to point out at this juncture that when we entered the restaurant there was one other couple there eating, for a total of 5 patrons.

About 15 minutes after we ordered, another couple arrived. That made it seven. Now, I know seven is higher than five, and it’s a prime number – so that could in theory add some difficulty for people, but then again, 5 is also prime, as are 1,2 and 3, so I don’t think it’s much of an excuse here.

Bearing in mind that the only reason we were in this restaurant in the first place was that the other option was inexplicably and unforgivably closed, you will no doubt sense my frustration in the paragraphs to follow.

As before, we had the option of 10 ‘set menus’, which mostly differed in the main meal portion, but which differed from the food everywhere else in no significant respect.

In general the food is lovely but it’s the formula that kills me. How about a soup other than lentil soup, guys? Would it kill you to try something just a little different?

But anyway… We made our selections; I opted for barbecued beef, Mel for its chicken equivalent.

Brett, still stung from his flavorless salad experience last time, caved and ordered a $5 bowl of chips as a supplement to his salad order, meaning he only spent $2 less than us, but had to forego not only the main meal, but also the soup and the dessert that we were scheduled to receive (can you see where this is going already? I bet you think you can…).

The salads arrive, and all looks good. We even got a couple of side salads that were a little different this time; something involving carrots and some sour cabbage.

Not too long after, the first of three of our portions of chips arrive.

Not knowing for whom they are earmarked, we all shared in their spoils, pending the arrival of the other food.

Around 20 minutes later, my main meal arrived – as advertised – some barbecued squares of beef and rice.

And Mel waited, and waited.

And waited some more, just for good measure.

I could see the fury and frustration rising in her eyes; every time the little door opened, we all looked up hopefully, expectantly, only to be disappointed time after time with our waiter delivering spoils for the other tables. I offered to go out and ask, as I think is my duty as not only the husband, but the party who’s finished his food for ten minutes already, but Mel decided to go herself. She’s much better at restaurant confrontations than me, so this arrangement did make a lot of sense.

By this point, she’d been waiting over an hour for 5 barbecued chicken wings and some rice; in a restaurant with seven patrons and a minimum of three staff members.

Evidently, her little visit to their pathetic excuse for a working kitchen (we never saw anyone actually working) did have an effect, because she returned and no more than 45 seconds later, her food did in fact arrive.

But still, we were down two servings of chips.

So we reminded the chap that we’re missing chips (noting that Brett actually needed food, having once more boarded the salad train to the town of Starvation (Population: 1)).

With a typical dismissive platitude, he disappeared to – we were assured – check into progress on that front.

Upon his return, brandishing a fresh plate of chips we thought, finally, that we’d had something go right. That is, until he bypassed us expressly, handed the platter to the Turkish couple who arrived after we ordered, and then proceeded to inform us that the chips were “no more”.

Fantastic. Fantastic freaking bull crap. We pressed the point, but he threw up his arms in resignation and made himself very scarce very quickly, presumably to avoid having to deal with either us or the people in the kitchen.

So we had no recourse, naturally, because we had the ‘set menu’, but no doubt when we check out tomorrow Brett will be on the hook for the beer from the first night, and the chips from the second, which both disappeared into a cloud of pathetically bad service.

Nonetheless, we looked on the bright side, focusing on the absurdity of the whole situation, which was a lot more fun than moping about or getting angry.

This also made the next twenty minutes tolerable, as we sat and waited for our promised fruit platters.

When it became evident that, not only was our fruit not coming, but the waiters had decided to avoid returning to the restaurant altogether (to avoid some kind of confrontation about chips? I’ll leave it up to you to speculate), we decided to just pull up stumps and leave.

What a delightful meal, in sum; salad, plain beef and rice, hour-late chicken and rice and a 1/3 portion of chips. No soup, dessert, or remaining 2/3 of the chips. At least Brett got his beer this time, I suppose.

The real shame in all this is that we actually liked the place initially; we had a very positive first impression and Mel and I were considering staying another 4 days. But owning to all these little things that they just repeatedly screw up – and don’t seem to see as problems – there is no way we could tolerate it.

Such a shame.

But is it a reflection on the country? I think, a little bit, yes. Because all these problems, as well as the attitude that goes with them, seem to stem from laziness.

When we left that restaurant, obviously annoyed and disappointed (owing to having received only parts of our promised meal) and early (they must have realized we hadn’t received our fruit platter – because, presumably, they would have had to prepare it), we walked directly past the kitchen and looked in.

What we saw was, in fact, exactly what we’d expected to see – the cook and the main waiter, sitting down in chairs next to a desk, each playing on their iPhones.

The waiter looked up at us momentarily, clearly recognized the hollow defeatism in our eyes, and promptly fixed his attention back upon his phone without so much as a “have a nice night”.

Just quietly, if I were helping to run a restaurant (in any capacity) and it only received seven patrons, I would be working very hard to ensure they have a good experience and hopefully come back – because without us, it was only four – and that’s a dire situation. I’d sooner go back to the main street rip off restaurant before returning there; sure, you pay too much but at least you get what you order.

Which brings me back to the laziness point; I find it hard to conclude otherwise but to say that if these guys had a bit of a higher care factor, they wouldn’t run such a half-assed operation.

It would be impossible.

If they spent just five minutes a day thinking through the guest experience, there is no way that experience would be so haphazard and unpredictable.

Last night, when we went to reception to request some new towels (ours hadn’t been able to dry in the damp weather), Mel started with “because our room wasn’t cleaned yesterday, we need some new towels please”. Perhaps I’m more attuned to her passive aggression, but I would think a normal person would infer that she was disappointed by that particular state of affairs.

His response? A very huffy one. Rather than engage on the topic of room cleaning (it won’t be serviced at all this stay, that much is clear) he merely asked, in a rather curt fashion, “how many and what’s your room number?”

The solution, apparently, was to send his gopher to our room (which is about 200m away) to avoid our having to wait two minutes for the towels to be fetched. It’s such a strange thing; that it’s easier for him to waste his resources like that than to just be a nice guy in the first place. We wouldn’t mind waiting (in fact, we’d prefer that to wasting 10 minutes of someone else’s time), but in order to get us to bugger off and allow him to get back to his TV show he’d happily make that sacrifice.

Ah, well. I started out confused, I continue to be confused.

We’ve decided to extend our stay in Cappadocia, primarily because we love the quality of the air out here – we feel like we can breathe far better than in Istanbul.

But we’ll be shifting hotels. I’ll surely write about any wacky stuff that happens there because, well, it’s fun. I’m not a complainer by nature. I’m really not. I was about to start my next sentence with ‘but’, and then I caught myself.

I’m not a complainer by nature – however, I do enjoy a good rant here and there.


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Istanbul, the Second Impression


We landed in Turkey with a thud. You can read about it here.

It was a tough start, but it’s obviously not fair to let one bad experience – or one bad night – permanently ruin our impression of a place. That would be short-sighted and not really serve anybody.

So I’ve given it a few days and now feel ready to make a more honest assessment of a place that I don’t think I could ever get a proper handle on.

Istanbul is certainly a city of contrasts; of land and water, east and west, rich and poor. It’s a place steeped in history, where cars zoom under an ancient Roman aqueduct while old men shine shoes and roast chestnuts, using the same methods they have for centuries.

In Istanbul, you can get a fresh orange juice for 1 lira or 20 lira, depending on where you buy it. If you’re a tourist, you can get a beer pretty easily in a restaurant; but it will come served in a take-away coffee cup.

It’s a place where democracy is dying; two weeks out from the election there is only one face to be seen – and it is everywhere. Yet the economy is growing, fast.

It’s a place where ethnic minorities are so reviled that when a peace rally is bombed, its leaders boycott the funeral.

It’s a place of relentless, but good-natured, harassment by street touts and the incessant beeping of car horns – as though drivers here believe the pedestrians lack a familiarity with the perils of oncoming traffic, even when walking on the footpath.

I haven’t figured it out.

But I am enjoying it.

It’s been a while since we’ve spent time in a place as gritty as this. It feels real to be out on the streets, watching people go about their lives in their little corner of the world.

I have a million competing thoughts; one is that it feels really uncomfortable being out and about, especially in side alleys and off the tourist track, where we seem to be spending quite a lot of time. To get back to our apartment we walk through what would constitute a slum in a developed country.

But that’s also the fun of it. Travel is supposed to stretch you, take you out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons. And I very much feel like we’re doing that.

Yes, we are still tracking down our hipster cafes and gluten-free baklava (yes Mel did find one!) but being out on the streets, it makes you feel alive in a way that a more sanitized, prettied-up western city just can’t.

Whether I’d want to live here, well, that is another matter altogether.

I feel like – and this is very much the perspective of a spoiled Western tourist – the city is at that stage of development where businesses start to transition from a service-oriented focus to a ‘profit at all costs’ kind of mantra. And that’s a bit awkward.

I’m always looking for frameworks around which to base my understanding of concepts and places; my working framework here is that of China, where an emerging middle class sees their neighbors getting bigger TVs and newer cars, and thinks: “why don’t I have that?”

I rail against consumerism as much as the next guy, probably much more, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting the stuff that you think will get you a better life.

However, it does create more of a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude; a competitive environment in which the weak suffer and the ruthless prevail.

A Chicago School economist would say: “that’s how it’s supposed to be” – incentives should be provided to those willing to work and innovate.

I used to ascribe to this way of thinking wholeheartedly. But these days I carry a much more nuanced view of things.

Especially in a country like Turkey, where society is not equal, it’s extremely flippant to say something like “you should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”.

Here, it feels much more like we are experiencing the tail end of a caste system; just a hundred years ago, Sultans still ruled from monolithic palaces and, when they died, had tremendous mausoleums built by slaves, serfs and underlings in their honor – we’ve walked into some (I would not recommend the experience highly).

Today, as we walk the streets of the old town, where we are living, we are frequently harassed by street vendors keen to make a few Lira selling this or that. Our local juice cart sells orange or pomegranate juice for 1 lira (40c) a cup; that is maybe scratching a living but it’s not going to take you to the next level – no matter how many you sell.

Tonight, on the way back to our apartment, we got accosted, as we often have, by a few local children, obviously accustomed to – maybe trained in – the art of harassing foreigners for money. While one girl of about eight years old was grabbing at me – literally climbing me – to get at my freshly purchased cup of juice, the other followed Mel relentlessly repeating “money, money, money”.

Rather than spill my juice everywhere, I relented; I didn’t have a choice. I was tempted to try and take a sip before I lost it, but I wasn’t even able to do that.

Mel had no money, so in order to prevent the girl following us into our building, I thought it prudent to give her some change, just 50 cents, so she would back off a bit. The fact that giving money to poor kids merely serves to perpetuate the problem notwithstanding, I’m not sure what other option we had.

It turns out that she would not have likely followed us in, but the whole situation was extremely uncomfortable. What can you do? I wish I had the answer.

But back to economics. How can these children get ahead in a society where their parents have no money, they themselves have no discipline and the education system serves only to benefit the rich and middle classes? They have no chance.

The development economist in me says that a social protection system is essential to give their families a safety net and remove the requirement to go begging and harassing hapless foreigners in back alleyways. I’d certainly love to see that happen, but right now I think the powers that be are more focused on spending public money on building 1000 room palaces and acquiring A330 airliners for their own personal use.

I don’t want to turn this into an economics treatise; suffice it to say the economy is suffering ‘growing pains’.

So we come full circle to our current situation. Wherever we go in Istanbul, we’re constantly reminded of the need to hold tightly onto our things, don’t flash any money and maintain a healthy distrust of, well, everyone. It’s a shame.

But if we just let ourselves relax and experience the place, there’s a very good chance we’ll get taken for a ride.

Just yesterday, our friend Brett avoided two separate scams within 2 hours; one, the shoe shiner who drops a brush – and then, when you kindly pick it up for him, he offers you a ‘free’ shoe shine – except it isn’t. And the second, a random stranger approaching him with the line “Hey, John, from the hotel!” – presumably, if it’s anything like the one I encountered in Bangkok a couple of years back, then claims to have been robbed and needs a loan.

Fortunately Brett’s BS detector is finely attuned, so he wasn’t about to fall for this one, but he did follow and watch the guy approach several other people soon after.

Evidently, none of them was called John.

Just this morning, while waiting at 6am for our pre-booked airport transfer, we were approached by the same taxi driver three times. The first, accosted from across the street by beeping and yelling (because that’s a good way to attract business).

We ignored him, which usually works, but he was particularly tenacious and crossed the six-lane road on foot to harass us a second time.

Despite telling him, quite clearly, that we had arranged our own transport and were waiting, he wouldn’t leave us alone until after several emphatic ‘NOs’.

But that’s not the end of the story, either (of course).

For then, he swung his car around, approached us from behind and, through a cloud of cigarette smoke (because the way to get us into your taxi is through harassment and lung cancer), told us in very broken English that we’d be much better off getting in his chariot of death because there was a problem with our transfer. He must have said the word ‘problem’ nine or ten times.

If I were the kind of person who is trusting and always gives people the benefit of the doubt, this trip would have done me in already. I’d be lying in my second ice bath tub with no kidneys, no money and I’d have swapped identities with some low-level street gangster.

Perhaps that’s a bit extreme (or is it?)

Yes it is. Because I actually have enjoyed Istanbul – on the whole. It just needs to, in the words of my father, get its shit together.

Mel commented to me today that the wealth disparity here is the worst she’s seen; and she’s been to quite a few more developing countries than I have – certainly countries whose national airline didn’t win best airline in Europe 2015 by Skytrax.

Today, we’re glad to be getting out of the city to experience a bit more of the ‘real’ Turkey. Funny how they say you need to leave the cities, where all the people are, to experience a country at its most genuine.

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Welcome to Turkey, the land of taxi scams and dark alleys


Last night, we touched down in Istanbul. It’s my first time in Turkey, Mel’s second.

Now I’m not usually one to judge places early, and I’m trying not to, but it was a very strange arrival.

My friend Doug last night messaged me asking about my first impression; I could only answer: “not as good as my second”.

So here’s how it went:

We landed at Istanbul’s new airport, Sabiha Gocken, at 5.30 pm local time; situated 40 mins drive from Taksim square, we figured we’d have plenty of time to track down our hotel before it got dark.

A great plan, in theory.

But it becomes less great when your bus takes two hours to travel those 40 minutes.

Back to that in a second.

First we had to get to the bus. There is no train link to this airport, so the shuttle bus or a taxi were our options. Based on the distance to travel, we thought a bus to Taksim and then a taxi would be the most painless bet.

Despite all the happened, thank god we didn’t take a taxi from the airport; I can only imagine what over two hours in the taxi would have cost us.

Getting to the bus, however, was like a game of real-life Frogger; dodging and weaving across the road between cars driven by people who can only be described as part homicidal maniac, part Schumacher wannabe with absolutely no respect for road rules or social conventions.

But, thanks to a finely tuned survival instinct, we did in the end make it across the road in one piece.

Aboard the bus, we settled in for what was a comfortable trip, although as the minuted turned into hours – and day tuned to evening – a sense of creeping insecurity did start to overcome us as we wondered whether we had somehow repeated our Munich experience.

Mercifully, somewhere along the way, among the gridlock, we did manage to lay our eyes on a sign for Taksim. It was all going to be ok. Our bus deposited us atop a hill, from where I’m sure the surrounding hotels provided a nice view all over town.

We made our way to some waiting taxis we’d seen a minute earlier, where we managed to convey our destination to the driver, who took off – again, forgetting that he wasn’t driving an 800 horsepower F1 car, but instead the rough safety equivalent of a tin can with wheels.

After a white-knuckled drive of about 15 minutes, we turned into a dark alley, which was blocked by a parked truck.

Beyond the truck, our driver assumed, was our hotel. At this point, we were surrounded by a scene from The Walking Dead – it was rubbish, stray cats, disheveled children playing and adults loitering, staring blankly into the car as we slowly crawled by.

We weren’t, as you might expect, keen to alight in the dark alley without some kind of certainty that we were in the right place.

So the driver continued up the street, occasionally calling out to strangers he came upon, to get some kind of confirmation as to our destination.

At one point, he drove directly through a mini-community that had been set up in the street adjacent a food stall, few of whom were willing to move their seats, even for a car driven by a mad Turk.

Somehow we made it through that throng, and out the other side, where the driver reversed up the street to what he assured us was our apartment.

Only, it was eerily quiet and nobody was answering the door.

Having not yet purchased a SIM card, we had no data and no ability to call, so stalled for time while – hopefully – someone came down to let us in.

But nobody did.

With our luggage still in the car, we made clear our reluctance to exit the vehicle evident; what on earth were we going to do stranded in the back alleys of Istanbul with no phone?

Instead, we dithered about until the driver asked if they had a number and kindly called them for us.

But alas, there was no answer.

So there we were, concerned us, exasperated driver, trying to figure out what our next move would be.

We figured we only had one choice at this stage; get to another hotel – and probably one the driver recommended, which would no doubt cost us more money than it should, since that is the way these things tend to go.

For the record, by now it was just past 8pm.

The driver then made another call, which to our eternal gratitude was answered.

He was on his way down, the man on the other end of the line assured our driver.

So we waited.

And waited.

And wondered if that conversation actually tool place the way he said it did.

And just then, an answer to our prayers; a kind looking bald man arrived.

In his broken English, he informed us that no, we wouldn’t be staying in the apartment we’d booked – but instead, he had a “really nice hotel” for us to stay in.

Of course, our alarm bells started ringing so loudly they could have drowned out the morning call to prayer.

For me, it was flashbacks to staying in Chung King Mansions in Hong Kong, where we were taken all the way up the wrong tower until we realized that the hostel we were being led to was completely the wrong place (did that guy not realize that when we said we’d pre-paid, we were telling the truth, or did he think we’d grow tired and pay for an entirely new place? I still wonder…).

In any case, we were on tenterhooks. But when the bald man put me on the phone to his offisder, who explained the situation, we were put more at ease. Evidently, they had assumed we weren’t coming, since we weren’t there by 8pm (I’m reading between the lines here), they had just given our room to someone else.

But never mind, they figured, because they had another room in their ‘hotel’ that was roughly the same and into which they could deposit two hapless travelers.

To be honest, we were perplexed but didn’t mind that much; it was a big relief to have somewhere to stay.

So the time came to pay the taxi driver. The meter, which he had stopped when he’d pulled the car up, had inexplicably reached 57 Lira – about 25 USD – for the fifteen minute drive.

That seemed odd, and I was thinking that during the drive it was ticking up fast – but what can you do? It’s the meter, right? Even if you know it’s dodgy, who will you complain to?

So I pulled out 60 Lira – three twenties – and handed it to the guy.

He takes the money, but then hands it back to me, claiming that one of them was torn. Indeed it was torn; at this point, Mel informed me that she was pretty sure she’d seen him tear the note himself.

I was really confused; why would he tear the money? And come to think of it, where is my other twenty?

I checked my pocket, and I had only fifties – where was the other twenty? Has he ripped me off? Did I hand him four, only to get three back? And why is one ripped?

And so what if it is ripped? Why is that a problem?

I let these questions quietly percolate in my head, making no sense to me, Mel and I occasionally muttering thoughts to each other, until the taxi driver, seemingly frustrated with my stupidity in not understanding why ripped notes would be a problem, said “ok, ok”, took the notes back from me, tear and all, and drove away.

I was still perplexed – where was the other twenty?

And then it hit me – I’d never withdrawn it! Rather than take out an even number, 300 Lira, like I’d intended, I’d gone for 280 instead, so we’d have change when the time came to catch a cab.

Silly me – he wasn’t trying to rip me off by taking my extra twenty, he was trying to rip me off by getting me to take back my only three twenties and then hand him back a fifty and a twenty, before telling me he had no change.

Or, according to the experience of many others, switching the fifty for a five – which looks very similar – and then hitting us up for even more money.

My unwitting ignorance actually saved us money in this case, as it outweighed his level of patience in pulling off his scam. Ross: 1, Taxi guy: 1.

Needless to say, we are over taxis and won’t take another one unless it’s through Uber. Even then, probably not.

Which brings me to my plea to the city of Istanbul:

Dear Istanbul,

There is a huge number of cities in the world that regulate taxis. Many of them have fewer resources than you do. It isn’t that hard – you make laws, you enforce them.

You rely on tourism for the growth of your economy, yet when many tourists travel to your great city, their first impression is to be scammed, leaving a very bitter taste in their mouth.

In five short minutes I found dozens of stories of tourists being scammed just like us, and many in far more egregious and terrifying ways. The fact that it is not all drivers does little to assuage the fear; how are we meant to know which are good and which are bad?

If you genuinely wish to be seen as a city that welcomes the world, one to which people wish to return after their initial visit, you need to get a grip on this very simple truth: in no small way, your taxi drivers are undoing all your good work.


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The Long, Rewarding Path to Minimalism


We never set out to live out of a suitcase each, plus an elegantly packed 5kg carry-on bag (including laptop). The progression from a large apartment full of stuff (inside, outside and in the basement storage) to a combined 50kg did not happen overnight; far from it, the process took us a few years and continues to this day.

What has been most stark to me, throughout the process, is that each time we’ve divested ourselves of a new bunch of stuff, we’ve decided we couldn’t possibly cut any further. But then, sure enough, we’d always have another round of trimming.


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Berlin Apartment Situation – Update


We won out on this transaction.

While we were disappointed to have to leave the apartment that we’d locked in over a month ago, we are in fact extremely fortunate that Nora, our landlord, has such good friends.

We, in essence, we’ve been given an upgrade. We’re now in a much larger apartment – it’s essentially two rooms larger – with a massive chaise lounge, two spaces for writing. In true Berlin style, this place is also above a bar. But it has much better sound-proofing.


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Beautiful Berlin – The Saga Continues!


So we have finally rid ourselves of the veritable rat den that was our longer-term sublease here in Berlin. It was a thrill the day we managed to move out of there, busing ten minutes across our part of town to our new apartment.

Everything about this place is better, from the floor to the view to the cleanliness of – well, everything. There’s no dust, no grime, it’s just nice.

So you can imagine our disappointment to have received a call from our landlord today, asking (pleading?) us whether we’d be happy to switch apartments to one owned by her friend in the next suburb over.

Now, it’s entirely possible that this other apartment exists and if it does, it’s entirely possible that it isn’t some kind of meth den. But why, I ask, is the onus on us? Legally, of course, it isn’t – other than the fact that we’re in a gray legal area with this sublease (though that’s her problem, of course – not ours).

But in dealing with people what’s legal is not always the be all and end all. Yes, we’ve prepaid the month’s rent and are therefore entitled to stay, but we’re in this weird situation where our landlord has effectively rendered herself homeless by having us stay in her apartment. It reminds me of the time we were staying in Bruges and our very drunk, very loud, AirBnB host asked if she could stay in the apartment with us, despite the fact that it was never on the cards after we paid a hefty price for the whole place.

But anyway, back we go to Berlin. How is it that our landlord is staying with friends while we’re in her apartment? That’s a good question. I’m not clear on the answer. What I do know is that when we were first put in touch with her (by a mutual friend) she was in Iceland giving a tour, so we didn’t meet her until we were just about to move in. She seemed neurotic, but nothing we aren’t accustomed to and confident we can handle.

So what we do know is that, in the interim period between when we first met her at the apartment and finalized details and the day we moved in, her plans changed – she was no longer moving to Sicily for a month, but staying in Berlin. We only found this out when we were already moving our things in, which was more than a little awkward – but what can you do? She assured us that she had places to stay and we assumed she needed the money.

Plus, we had no fall back plan, so had she reneged ont he deal at that point we would have been left out on the cold, in every which way.

I’m currently on the lounge and tomorrow we’re supposed to be chatting with Nora, our sublessor, about ‘options’ – she apparently has possession of this second apartment and we’re ‘welcome’ to stay, except for the part where it feels like we’d be most unwelcome. She is clearly the kind of person who needs order in her life, which I can understand, albeit to a degree that I cannot.

I think we’re in for an awkward discussion tomorrow. She claims this other apartment is really nice, bigger than hers (we don’t need the space) and in a better location (we like this location).

I told her we’d be able to talk about it, but that naturally we are surprised by the development.

So just when we thought we were finally in the clear, perhaps we are not. But we certainly aren’t just going to roll over and take it.

On the one hand, I understand that she’s got herself into a bit of a messy situation with the apartments. On the other hand, one of us is going to be inconvenienced. Even if the other place is nicer, we will have to move – again – just after we settled in. That’s a pain, when we’re really just trying to be productive.

On the other hand, all her things are here and it’s entirely feasible that she was just honoring our agreement because she felt guilty about leaving us in the lurch. I’m not sure, but I can’t rule out the possibility.

So perhaps in a couple of days I’ll be writing from Kreugberg, rather than Neukolln. It’s possible. I don’t know, I guess even though we’ve settled and everything my natural inclination would be to be understanding and go along with it – provided it’s as nice. But maybe that’s just me being soft. It probably is.

What I do know is it’s awkward to stay in any place where you aren’t wanted.

Onto other updates and learnings from Berlin in the sequel to this post, to be published very soon.

We spent Friday, Mel’s birthday, out and about – and had a rollicking good time. In the morning, we had breakfast at the top of the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), which brought to five our tally of revolving restaurants (alongside Sydney, Canberra, Bangkok and Pyongyang).

Other than the hilarious (and ever so German) requirement that you either cloak your jacket, or wear it at all times – “it is not allowed to place your jacket on your seat back” – and the fact that we encountered the first foggy morning in three months in Berlin, we had a great time. They even served Gluten Free bread, which, while bearing no obvious resemblance to bread in form, appearance, taste or texture, did a commendable job of maintaining a reliable barrier between my fingers and the butter.

We didn’t get a great view, but the fog gave us a lot of laughs so in a way, I guess that was even better(?) I’ll just leave that as an open question.

We then headed north, further into old ‘east’ Berlin, where we tried a new coffee place named ‘Oslo’. Of course, it was staffed by an Australian (assisted by a very whiny German) and managed by an American.

The coffee was ok, but not great, by third-wave Berlin standards (although I think if the Australian girl had made them we’d have been much better of). But all this paled into insignificance in comparison to the amount of sheer entertainment value we got from the antics of the German staff member. Like every good German language text book I had in school, I’m going use cultural stereotypes and call him Hans.

Poor Hans had a very fragile sense of pride and was very easily hurt. This did not, for him at least, play very well alongside the extremely dry, sarcastic – perhaps in Australia you’d say ‘no bullshit’ – personality of Kylie (perhaps her real name, probably not, but I play my stereotypes fairly).

So while relegated to drinking flavourless coffee, we were treated to the delicious spectacle of Kylie taking Hans to task a number of times for his failures as an employee, as well as Hans essentially begging for attention in a sickening display of neediness and emotional inadequacy.

Mel particularly enjoyed it when Kylie made a very Australian sarcastic comment, to which Hans paused for a few second and eventually replied, in an extremely humorless voice “your sarcasm is mistimed”. I think there is an outside chance it was an attempt at wit, but probably not. Poor Hans, he really didn’t get it.

The highlight for me was when Hans tried to corner Kylie and take her to task for not laughing sufficiently at his jokes. Come on, Hans; how old are you?

At this point, I suggested to Mel I’d like to help her out and say something to him along the lines of “you sound like an idiot”, but Mel reassured me that Kylie could take care of herself. Of that I have absolutely no doubt.

I’d say that Hans is a man that needs to try harder, but it’s not the trying that’s his problem, really – it was just a depressingly bad display of execution. The sense of relief in the place, not just from Kylie, but the other patrons listening into his petty moans and complaints, was palpable when Mr American guy entered the cafe and got to work.

So off we trotted to our next destination, the Berlin zoo! I haven’t been to a zoo in a very long time; Mel and I took my brother Jayden to our local zoo when he was about 3 feet shorter than he currently is. That was the last time. I’ve been to lost of aquariums, or rather, the same aquarium lots of times, since Mel developed her penguin addiction, but I’d forgotten how cool zoos are.

Obviously there are a lot of legitimate arguments about the treatment of animals in captivity, so I’ll just acknowledge that and move on for present purposes. Perhaps it’s something we can look into on the Fair Marketeers blog. Instead, I’m just going to talk about the highlights – and funnies – from our day out.

Firstly, they had a Polar Bear – or as the Germans prefer to call them (it’s obvious why, it’s a much cooler name), an Eis Bear.

I think it could have done with a friend. But in any case, it’s the first Polar Bear I’ve ever seen and seemed healthy, if not excited by life.

There were some amazing Rhinos, some very active Hippos (another first for me) and a fantastic sea lion show, complete with the cliched – though I’d never before realized possible – trick of balancing a ball on the nose. Those guys were cool.

The penguins – they have three species; two inside in the cold and one outside. Mel hadn’t seen two of the three prior, so was able to tick two off her bucket list, which was pretty cool. I was a bit disappointed for her that we didn’t get to see the Rockhopper Penguins actually jump on anything – they were really chubby, in truth – but they were there at least.

The African penguins outside were the most exciting – and they were pretty cute so kind of made up for the apathy of their disinterested brothers and sisters indoors.

Other highlights? Oh, the Senegal Bush Babies – I have never seen anything like these! Really they have to be seen to be believed. About 10cm high, but they could leap up to – and hold onto – the ceiling of the room in a single jump. And then jump straight back to the spot they’d left, seemingly without exerting any effort at all.


But the image that will be forever and indelibly etched in our minds is of an activity of a much more primal nature. That is, our up-close and just at the right angle view of the majestic, yet gruesome; powerful, yet guttural three second lovemaking session between the resident lion and lioness.

Shocking as it was brief, the gathered spectators (including a number of parents who’d brought children along) were left stunned – but endlessly entertained – by their time witnessing the most energetic phase of the ‘circle of life’.

And when she – and then he – fell to the ground in an almost comically overacted display of exhaustion, the assembled crowd couldn’t help itself but to catch a fit of the giggles.

Fun times at the zoo, indeed.

Would I recommend the Berlin Zoo? I would give it an eight out of ten for the variety, and a five for family friendliness.

To round out the day, we caught the U-Bahn a hefty fifteen stops to Mitte, in the old British quarter, in pursuit of a gluten free pizza. Yes, these are the lengths we go to for the simplest pleasures in life.

The place was great, and they even served us a Tiramisu, which was delightful. The house-made pizza base was, well, house made. But I give them points for trying. Is it telling that still, the best gluten free pizza bases we’ve ever been served came from Costco?

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Beautiful Berlin – Update Post


So we have finally rid ourselves of the veritable rat den that was our longer-term sublease here in Berlin. It was a thrill the day we managed to move out of there, busing ten minutes across our part of town to our new apartment.

Everything about this place is better, from the floor to the view to the cleanliness of – well, everything. There’s no dust, no grime, it’s just nice.

So you can imagine our disappointment to have received a call from our landlord today, asking (pleading?) us whether we’d be happy to switch apartments to one owned by her friend in the next suburb over.


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A Little Berlin Update (and Where to Next?)


I feel a bit obligated to write this post, since my last Berlin posts centred more around our struggles finding accommodation and the adventure of discovering good coffee, which were the matters that we cared most about early on, as well as the nature of German bureaucracy (that is, overbearing and inefficient in the extreme).

So in this post, I’ll talk more about German bureaucracy, but gone private.


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Optimizing for Mobility – Our Struggles Keeping the Luggage Down


Mel and I are avowed minimalists.

It’s true – we even got profiled by a major Australian newspaper.

This can be a charged term, meaning different things to different people. There are minimalists who count the number of items they own (including individual socks) and try to keep them under a certain number (someone I heard owned 70 items).

That’s a bit crazy, but good on them.


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