Friday, November 9, 2012

Issues and Istanbul

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul 
It's been awhile since I've written, but it's not because of a lack of things to say! It has been an interesting few months, to say the least, and I have a new "understanding" of government bureaucracy.

My Finnish residence permit expired in August. I had applied for a renewal last June, which I was told was plenty of time to get the new one. I made fall travel plans back to the U.S. for September, in order to get a decent price. August came and went, no permit. Calls and emails were not successful. I was told there was a big back-up in permit processing. Another expat wife who was in the same situation as me flew to the U.S. -- through Brussels -- and had no problem. So I left Finland in late September and encountered a big problem -- Passport Control in Frankfurt, Germany! to make a long story short, I was detained for an hour and a half -- almost missed my flight to Charlotte -- and was extremely upset. I should be grateful, though --  a man from Houston living in Hamburg also was detained for a permit issue and he missed his flight home -- and his two dogs were on the plane without him! I hope he eventually got another flight and his dogs were safe.

Anyway, I was eventually let go after the Franfurt border control police called Finland to make sure I had indeed applied for a renewal permit, and I ran to make my flight. After more calls, my permit was finally processed, my husband picked it up at the local police station and sent it to me by Express Mail. Guess what? It then -- for some unfathomable reason -- got held up in U.S. Customs in New York! More calls and emails. The Post Office said they couldn't track it until it was released from Customs. The Customs office told me they get thousands of packages every day and can't track individual items until they have been held for 45 days.

So my two-week visit to the U.S. turned into four weeks. I'm not complaining about that, because the weather at home was a heck of a lot better than the weather in Rauma, Finland! But I had to cancel flights, re-book, lost money in the process and was extremely stressed out. The permit eventually was released by Customs, and I made it back to Finland barely in time to make a long-planned trip to Istanbul with two of my expat friends.

Sasha, our hotel's resident cat
Now, to the postive stuff! I have to admit I was a little wary of going to Turkey, especially with all of the violence going on in neighboring Syria. But Istanbul is on the northern coast, and Syria is on the southern border, so we figured it was far enough away. There have been protests in Istanbul -- we witnessed three busloads of riot police one day waiting for a protest to start -- but nothing too bad. Plus, we stayed in the tourist areas, so we felt safe. Safe except for over-aggressive shop owners, some who even follow you trying to get you to buy their goods. That is really annoying. But I have to say we also met some wonderful people -- the staff at our hotel, two entertaining tour guides, some shop owners who were respectful and entertaining. It definitely is an interesting city!

My friends and I had a wonderful trip, visiting the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Spice Market, Grand Bazaar, Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi Palace, and enjoying the view from the Galata Tower. We took a boat ride on the Bosphorus Strait and visited the Asian side of Istanbul. We had great meals, lovely walks around Sultanhamet (the old town), fun shopping. My friends tried the famous Turkish bath (offered at our hotel).

Most fun, I think, was taking pictures of and feeding all the stray cats around Istanbul. Many hotels and shops "adopt" cats. Our hotel's resident cat was named Sasha, and she definitely ruled the front steps there. The Hagia Sophia even has a cat that lives inside the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum. There are also stray dogs in Istanbul, and they are really sad-looking. The cats, however, mostly look well-fed and healthy. Perhaps they are just better at finding food (i.e., mice and scraps).
Inside the Hagia Sophia

We also couldn't get over just how big Istanbul really is. It's a city of 15 million people -- nine million live on the Asian, mostly residential side, and six million live on the European, more urban side. Traffic, of course, is horrendous, but the city is very beautiful, with so much history. I would definitely visit again.

Then, as we got to the airport to fly back to Finland, we were reminded once again of how volatile that part of the world is. Everyone who enters the airport immediately has to go through security, not just passengers. Then, after you check in, you have to go through passport control and security again. That didn't bother me one bit -- I definitely appreciate the safety measures.

And while I didn't appreciate being detained in Frankfurt for so long, and I didn't understand why it was a big deal since I was heading home to the U.S. -- where I am a citizen -- and I told the officers I would not try to re-enter Finland until my permit was sent to me -- I can certainly appreciate what the Passport Control agent told me: "I'm just doing my job." 

Living abroad is an adventure, and we can learn much from the negative as well as the positive experiences.


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