October 2010 Archives

Why Big Government is a Conservative Value


I keep hearing conservative politicians and pundits talking about how we need to reduce the size of government. But fundamentally, Big Government, with lots of employees doing lots of jobs, is something conservatives can get behind.

The thing is, the economy is changing. We're getting a lot of jobs that require more than just a college education -- biotech, computer science, advanced materials science, that sort of thing. We're also getting jobs that are, frankly, menial, like gardeners and cooks and child care, which those high-end wage earners need because America worships "productivity" rather than wealth or happiness (which means people stay at work longer hours and don't have time to do things like clean their own home or cook their own meals).

Where the jobs are disappearing is in the middle. What kind of job can you get with a high school education? Not much of one, but one place where you can get a job is from the government. And it's a stable job, so people with minimal education can stay employed rather than constantly being on welfare or unemployment. Which is where the conservative values come in.

See, conservatives are really behind this idea of work-for-welfare. They don't want anybody to get a free handout, which is fair enough -- I think anybody who went to kindergarten would like life to be fair. But for some reason they also don't want to provide jobs for those people. (By the way, the problem with work-for-welfare is and has always been exactly what work those welfare recipients would do, and who would pay them to do it.)

I don't think anybody would argue that it is better to have an entire (and large) class of people be unemployed and unemployable than it is to have them in stable employment that pays them enough that they can pay rent, buy groceries, buy large-screen televisions (this is a fundamental American value, folks), and buy gas for their cars. But nobody seems to know who is going to employ these people who are not the brightest and best the country has to offer. I think any conservative would agree that if the options are to have this person get public assistance for the rest of their life for sitting on their butt doing nothing, or to have them go to work every day and sort mail or monitor traffic cameras, the better of the two options is the one where they are out of the house and a marginally productive member of society.

Unless, of course, by conservative you mean somebody who wants to drive down the cost of labour. And in this country, that is what conservatives do. They want to make it harder to leave your job and start your own business (by tying health care to employment), they want to shove thousands of underskilled labourers into the workforce (by reducing the size of the government), they want to create more underskilled labourers (by gutting the public education system), they want to make people desperate (by cutting off government aid to those in need), and they want to drive down the effective wage (by demanding higher and higher productivity, so the actual wage paid per dollar earned for the corporation falls). We're already competing with what amounts to slave labour in the manufacturing sector. If conservatives in America had their way, we'd have slave labour wages all over the country. If unemployment gets high enough, you will see people clamouring to lower the minimum wage, and that would make employers very happy, indeed.

I can only chalk it up to the inadequate economics and logical reasoning education that the average American gets that this agenda is very popular among the very people it harms the most (just like tax cuts for the richest seem to be very popular with people who cannot ever hope to make that enough to benefit from them). Why else would you consistently vote for politicians who are stealing the future from your children?

But if you're really a fiscal conservative, you would think it would be better to have more people employed and paying taxes, rather than having lots of people who live off the work of others for no reason other than that that is more convenient for businesses that want to make more profits. A fiscal conservative should want economic stability, not a feudal corporate system that has no job security and lots of boom and bust years that are terrific for exploiting for profit, but terrible for long-term planning and social order. Large government, government that employs lots of otherwise unemployable people and gets economic value out of them, is a conservative government.

Shopping in Turkey


Shopping is what the majority of tourists come to Turkey -- or at least Istanbul -- to do. Our hotel in Aksaray was flooded with masses of tourists on shopping tours: they come in and shop like mad all day long. In the late afternoons they would come staggering into the lobby with their arms loaded down with shopping bags.

The reason for this is that certain things are plentiful and cheap in Istanbul, and among those things are counterfeit designer goods. The markets are filled with storefronts with what would be $5000 handbags if they were actually the real thing. Since I am singularly uninterested in wearing anybody's logo all over myself, much less in paying to do so, no matter how little I pay, this sort of thing had no appeal to me, but it had a lot of appeal to pretty much every other tourist.

Now you also find store after store with clothing that is not counterfeit, but is not big-name designer. And to be fair, most of the tourists staying in our hotel were going to those stores; decent clothing is quite inexpensive in Istanbul compared to other parts of Europe, and everybody raved to us about how easy it was to find inexpensive, well-made shoes there.

Grand Bazaar street

Pretty much every larger city has a covered market. This one is the Kapalı Çarşı -- literally "covered market" but in English known as the Grand Bazaar-- in Istanbul. The shops are tiny, little storefronts that can be as small as five feet wide and are rarely more than fifteen feet deep. But they use the space to full effect, hanging merchandise from every surface.

You can buy a lot of stuff in there: there are gold and silver merchants who sell jewelry by the gram based on the commodity price, there are stores that sell mostly souvenirs, scarf shops, pottery sellers, candy and spice shops, rug dealers, watch shops, sporting clothing shops, fabric stores, linen shops, and it just goes on. You won't find stationery (find that at a kirtasiye), or drugs (eczane), or even a book store (kitabevi), but for picking up presents to bring back home, this is your place.

Rug beaters and printing blocks in a display

Because this market in particular is filled with tourists, there aren't any really good bargains in there. I found this display with a pile of old rug beaters -- these are handmade tools for beating the weft on knotted pile rugs. The salesman wanted 80TL for them. I might have been willing to pay 20TL and felt like I'd overpaid, because these are not antiques (they could not have been more than 20 years old) nor are they particularly rare. Nor, I should note, were any of them in actually usable condition. But I'm sure enough people come through and want an "authentic" souvenir, and they can sell as many of these as they need to at that price. We didn't ask about the broken fabric printing blocks next to them; I knew those would be overpriced, as well.

The other thing you should understand is that you cannot be certain of the validity of a brand (well, sometimes you can be sure it's counterfeit), the country of origin of a piece (even when it is printed on the item), or what materials are in a piece (unless it's from the gold and silver merchants). Sellers will tell you what they think you want to hear. Or they may not have enough English to tell you anything at all.

Garden supply

Some of the stalls are outdoors, like pet foods and garden supplies. And unlike US stores where you buy packages of fixed size, these shops open up large sacks and sell by the kilo, so you can get just as much bird seed or cat food as you need (or can reasonably carry).

Sweets display

And sometimes the open bins are a little less than appealing. This is a display of sticky sweets -- Turkish Delight and similar things with sugar and nuts. It is right on the open corridor of the market, so dust and dirt and sneezes can get all over it.

Cat on a vendor table

And if you want your merchandise to be untouched by cats, good luck. I've mentioned how all Turks seem to be totally PWN3D by cats, and I am not kidding.

Also, you can find single-item vendors on the streets. I mentioned previously that you can buy tissue packets and bottled water from unlicensed vendors. But they are opportunists. So when the rain came down in sheets on our last day in Istanbul, the umbrella vendors were out selling cheap plastic umbrellas for 4-5TL each (and we bought one, because I had brought neither rain coat nor umbrella with me).

Umbrella vendor in the rain

The actual shopping experience is a social one. You see an item. If you are interested, you may ask the price or a question about the material or origin (but take it with a grain of salt; you should know how to identify what you're looking for, or not care). The vendor may take the item down for you to examine more closely. You begin negotiating on price -- can I get a deal if I buy more than one, that sort of thing. If you can't come to an agreement on the price, you move on. If you can, you may have a painful conversation that reaches the edges of your limits of Turkish. The price is tallied, and often rounded down -- or the vendor may throw an extra item in the package as a gift to you. You say your thanks, and go through the elaborate leaving process. We went shopping on our last day in the Grand Bazaar, and went through this process several times, for everything from fabric to little tourist trinkets. Apart from grocery stores and the big bookstores, we had no "choose an item and buy it" shopping experiences.

This may make you worried about not knowing Turkish. Which is legitimate. We had my father along to help with translation and negotiations. But for the most part, vendors know a good amount of English. Numbers, materials, a few choice phrases. The only time it gets weird is when you need an obscure item, in which case a small travel dictionary and a willingness to take some time will get you what you need. Shopkeepers seem to be exceptionally bored in Turkey, because they will devote as much time as required to figuring out that you want a darker red fez in size 4 even though the sale is for a ridiculously small amount.

Getting Sick in Turkey


I always worry a lot about illness and medication when I travel, because I take medication every day and need to keep taking it to stay alive. So before we left for the trip I arranged to get an extra supply of my meds -- I always travel with enough for the trip plus one week of travel delay.

It turns out that in Turkey, prescription medications are all available over the counter in any corner eczane (ej-zah-neh, or drugstore). And in tourist areas you will find rows of eczane with big ads for all those drugs they sell through spam. I wasn't in the market for male performance enhancers, but it was comforting to know that if I ran out of my usual prescriptions I could just buy them, usually for much less than the cost of the prescription in the US.

Unlike the mini-department stores we have in the US, drug stores in Turkey pretty much only sell actual drugs and beauty supplies. No notebooks, no pens, no candy. Like most places, the clerks could usually do some very simple commercial English and understand the names of drugs, with one exception, which is that in Turkey, as in every other place in the world except America, acetaminophen is called paracetamol.

You can often buy small packets of tissues (and bottles of water, and other items) on the street. The people who sell them (for 0.50TL or 1TL or so) are basically beggars. Begging is illegal, and in theory so is vending without a license, but the police will turn a blind eye to that for the most part. For the most part the money they make that way is their sole support, so we bought the occasional bottle of water that way.

The word for hospital in Turkish is "hastanesi," the emergency room is "acil servis." I hope you don't need those. However, since hospitals are often indicated on maps, whereas just about nothing else including many roads is guaranteed to be, knowing the words can be an important wayfinding device.

Eating in Turkey

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A typical Turkish breakfast, as presented in hotels, has hard boiled eggs, a couple of kinds of cheese (one that is much like Monterey Jack, and beyaz peynir, which is Turkish for "white cheese": a slightly sour cheese with the consistency of feta), thick strained yogurt, sliced bread, a selection of preserves (often including rose flower jelly), a couple of kinds of olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Some places had dry cereal and UHT milk available, but since the cereal appeared to be something along the lines of Cocoa Puffs, I gave it a pass.

Some days there would be börek -- an example of börek that more Americans would have experienced is spanakopita (which in Turkish is ıspanak börek), though usually in the morning it would be sigara börek, rolled into cigar shapes with just white cheese and maybe a few spices inside. Fancier hotels might have a selection of pastries and cakes.

I'm perfectly happy to eat a hard-boiled egg every day, so I did. That, plus a handful of olives, some tomatoes and cucumbers, and a scoop of yogurt with honey on top make a pretty good breakfast to start your day. There was always hot çay (very dark tea) in a dispenser, usually one that also dispensed hot water so you could lighten the çay as much as you liked. Sometimes there was a Nescafe machine so you could get something removely like coffee, but I have it on good authority that the stuff is terrible. Often there was a dispenser of something rather like a less-sweet Tang, which was acceptable. I'm not really a hot beverages kind of person, so most mornings I had the Tang stuff or water.

The rhythm of the day revolves around snacking. Breakfast, do some stuff (for us this was a one and a half hour trip across Istanbul), then a cup of çay. Lunch, which would usually be something fairly simple like döner (meat on a spit cooked with a gas flame, then sliced off either to make a plated meal or to put in a pide, which is the Turkish word for pita) or a piece of börek. Then midafternoon another çay. Then dinner (more elaborate), followed by more çay.

Cay at Pierre Loti

One afternoon my cousin Erdinç picked us up and drove us to some more inaccessible sights. We ended up here, at Pierre Loti, a lovely cafe that looks out over the city. It's perfectly natural to go to a cafe and just order a çay, which costs usually 1.5TL (about a dollar) and then sit at the table for an hour or more. The waiter doesn't glare at you or try to encourage you to move on.

After that cafe, we went to Erdinç's house, where his amazing wife had made a delicious dinner for us:

Dinner with Erdinc

This is a pretty typical fancy but not elaborate dinner for guests. We had a shepherd's salad (chopped cucumber, chopped tomato, chopped onion, dressed with oil and vinegar and maybe parsley). The soup is yoğurt-based, it is made from a dried cake prepared in advance by mixing yogurt plus spices and drying it; you can then powder the cake and reconstitute it with hot water for a quick soup. There's also homemade spinach börek, chilled canned red peppers in yoğurt, and a simple stew, plus we had whole wheat and white bread. (Noel got a special little dish of peppers that you can see in the front; all my relatives were amazed by his ability to eat very spicy foods.) We had sour cherry juice to drink (my cousin is both a devout muslim and a vegetarian, so no alcohol and no meat). For dessert we'd stopped and bought some baklava and a very sweet melon on the way to his house, plus Erdinç's wife made little cooked rice pudding cakes soaked in sugar water.

A typical restaurant meal would be a little less elaborate. We'd usually start with a shepherd's salad (lettuce or greens-based salads were not usually available outside of tourist areas), plus various breads. Then a dinner plate with either an entire small fish (çupra, or sea bream, was a pretty nice choice) or köfte (lamb meatballs) or cooked meat (and meat pretty much always meant lamb cooked within an inch of being charcoal), plus a little dab of pilaf, plus a vegetable or two. I pretty much grew up on pilaf, and it's what I always think of as default starch with dinner (well, rice of some sort). I was surprised how much bread figured in, until my mother explained that when my father was young, there had been a flour shortage, so bread was only for holidays. In the 40-some years since he left, that's obviously changed, and now people throw bread all over the table like it's going out of style.

The other thing is, as in the cafes, we were never hustled out of our table in a restaurant. When you arrived for dinner, they seated you and you owned that table for as long as you wanted to stay. In some cases this could be hours. Some people came and went while we ate our meals, and sometimes we arrived after a particular party and left well before them. Whether this was good or bad for business I don't know, but September is supposed to be the big tourist month in Istanbul and we were always able to find a table; there are a lot of restaurants.

On a practical note, in Turkey restaurants add a 10% service charge to the bill, and then you can add more for better service. We always did, though several people told me Turks often do not.

Dinner with the class

On the last night of our Turkish classes, those of us who were physically able (one member of the class was disabled enough to not be able to navigate the streets in Istanbul) went to a restaurant in Taksim. We ordered the mixed grill platter for the table to share. This is the platter arriving at the table: a large tray piled with assorted types of grilled meats and meatballs, with vegetable salads in the corners, bulgar and pilaf on the ends, and flatbreads laid over the top.

A valiant effort to finish the platter

We made a valiant effort to finish the platter, but in the end there was still quite a bit of food left.

You can also see, in the photos, that despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Turkey are muslim, it is still a secular country in many ways, one of which is the ready availability of beer. The local brand is Efes (which you may note is the Turkish name for Ephesus). It's not the greatest beer, just a light lager that borders on having enough flavour, but it's not bad. We also sampled Turkish wines while visiting my father's college friend, who is a vintner, and they were not half bad. The typical Turkish hard liquor is rakı, which is like pretty much every other anise-based liquor I've ever had. It's not bad diluted heavily with water, but not a first choice if you want to taste anything but anise.

Dinner in Aksaray, the city

Here are my parents plus my dad's friend from school, Aydin, and his wife. We had an amazing meal in this hotel in Aksaray (the city, not the neighborhood in Istanbul), and at this point we were on the cheese course. Turkey has a wide variety of very interesting cheeses.

I'd be remiss if I did not at some point mention street food. But honestly, we didn't eat very much street food. Throughout Istanbul you'll find signs for balık ekmek -- fish bread -- which is a grilled fish sandwich.

Fish sandwich stand

You pretty much won't find fish at any real distance from the water, but Istanbul, being right on the water, is crazy with fish. It's not always cheap -- the fish we got in restaurants near our hotel was between 15TL and 20TL a plate, and went upwards if you wanted something fancier -- but street food is usually smaller portions and less fancy, and thus cheaper.

Fish sandwich shop

The other thing you'd see around Istanbul, more in areas where there were fewer tourist, was kumpir. Which is basically mixed pickled things on a baked potato.

Mixed salad vendor

I never expected the pickles. Just about every Turkish sandwich has pickles in it, and you can buy pickles everywhere, and at restaurants you get pickles as if they were refills of water (which you do not get).

My father and the ancestral vegetable stand

And the best kind of street food: little corner markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. This is my dad standing by what I jokingly referred to as the ancestral greengrocer's stand: his grandfather had a fruit stand on this corner when my dad was a kid. Maybe that is why every time we passed a fruit seller, he had to stop and buy fresh figs (in Turkey they are enormous, easily four times the size of a fig in California) and other kinds of fresh fruit. And the fruit is terrific. Turkey doesn't have the same homogenized produce system as we have in the US, and fall is a great time for fresh fruit in a Mediterranean climate, so stands were piled with interesting apples, sweet grapes (almost all with seeds), fresh figs, tomatoes, and so on. Dates were just starting to come in, as well, so you could get fresh dates and dates that had been allowed to shrivel and sweeten but hadn't yet gotten dry. You can get those in the US, but only with careful searching and luck (being in an area where date palms grow, for example).

The next time we go to Turkey we want to rent an apartment (we tried to do it this time but had a language barrier) and do more of our own cooking and shopping. You can live quite cheaply off fruit stands and the other markets, and the food is really very good.

Getting Around in Turkey


Turkey -- well, Istanbul -- is actually quite nicely connected with plenty of public transit. If you don't have to be somewhere at a specific time, or are operating on what we came to call "Turkish Time" which is a sort of perpetual lateness that ends up being quite charming, then public transit will do you just fine.

Public Transit

The first day we were in town, transit was mysteriously free until 1pm, but it was hard to figure that out because of course we had hardly any Turkish. We bought a pair of Akbil, which are these thumb-sized transit passes. Much more convenient than having change on hand, plus the fare is discounted for transfers (though we didn't figure that out until the second week). Even so, fares are very cheap (paying full fare to go all the way across the city -- a 1 1/2 hour trip with two transfers -- was 4.5TL, or about $3.20 at the exchange rate we had during our trip). It's a set fee, unlike BART which charges you more for going further. Like most European countries, Turkey does not penalize you for using public transit.

The thing about public transit is that it can be really crowded.

Crowded tramvay

That's the tram at our usual morning stop (Aksaray). People rely on the doors to hold them in the tram, and it is crowded, very crowded. We often walked up to the next station to get on a slightly less crowded tram. But we'd still be pressing ourselves into a a space where the average American would think nobody more could fit.

Also, practically nobody in Turkey uses deodorant.

On the other hand, public transit was one of the few places where nobody smoked in defiance of the "Sigara Içilmez" (Smoking Forbidden) posters. Possibly because it would be impossible to light up a cigarette in such a crowded space.

On the other hand, some forms of transit were really quite civilized. The Metro -- North of the Golden Horn on the European side -- was much like BART, only on a grander scale, and new enough that it wasn't making the horrible sounds BART makes.

Door in the Metro, Istanbul

I liked the decorative details on this door.

And near Taksim Square, you can take this incredibly slow but cute streetcar:

Istanbul streetcar

It's the "Historic Tramvay" and it is awfully sweet, if a completely inefficient way of getting anywhere promptly.


Walking is always a viable option in Turkey. OK, maybe not safe, but viable. For really big roads, they have pedestrian underpasses, which are lined with tiny shops.

Pedestrian undercross

This was just such an underpass on a Saturday afternoon.

Americans often bemoan the fact that our cities are not walkable, that we need nice sidewalks and comfortable streets and all kinds of things to make them more usable, or nobody will use them. In Turkey, almost none of the streets has a sidewalk that would pass muster in the US. They're uneven, have steep curbs (one near our hotel was 2 feet tall), crowded with merchandise and people and junk, and sometimes cars are parked half on the sidewalk. Intersections are often uncontrolled in any way, and where they are the controls don't take pedestrian traffic into account at all. But people walk, because it's a walking culture.

One thing that I liked a lot about this was that everybody was aware of what was going on around them at all times. You can see in the video that the cars are paying attention to the pedestrians, and vice versa. And pedestrians pay attention to each other.

The only thing I really didn't like was that if you have any kind of physical disability, any reason to rely on handrails or even sidewalks, you are basically out of luck in many parts of the country. Most parts of the country. You'll need to rely on taxis and hotels with elevators, and some restaurants and cafes will be inaccessible for you. And of course the bathrooms are inaccessible.


I don't recommend you drive in Turkey. We did, because my cousins lent us a car and we went on a big tour through the countryside. But driving in Turkey, especially in the big cities, is much more complicated than driving in the US. If you feel right at home driving in Rome, Turkey will be your driving oyster. (That was not a very graceful metaphor, but let's stick with it and move on.)

Drivers in Turkey use road signs as a suggestion. And lane markings; if another car fits, they will put it there, often a lot closer than Americans are comfortable with. They rarely signal. The horn is used both to say, "Hey, I'm doing this" and to say "get moving" and other ruder things. Some of the larger cities are crazy warrens of one-way streets and divided roads where you can't get where you need to be, and road maps are few and far between, and leave out many roads. Also, there are practically no street signs, so even if you have a map you can't place yourself on it. And the people who give you directions (assuming you know enough Turkish to ask for them and understand them) are all pedestrians, so sometimes they say to turn through a covered market or plaza where you obviously cannot drive a car.

We didn't take any bus tours or trains. I've heard buses are pretty nice, trains are pretty slow, and to get to the cities in the center of the country you should just take a plane. Everybody we know seemed to rely fairly heavily on buses and hitching rides with a friend who is headed in a particular direction.


The next time we go to Istanbul I want to take a water taxi, but it didn't work out this time.

The ferries from Istanbul to cities along the coast on the Asian side were quite civilized, but definitely not tourist-oriented. For the most part you end up in a cabin where you can barely see through the windows, with no outdoor access at all. But the ferries are fast and efficient, and relatively cheap if you don't have a car with you. They save you a long slow drive around the Bosphorus and through the city, and for us, they picked up and dropped off at a ferry terminal a few blocks from our hotel in Istanbul, which was a big win.

In Which We Visit Turkey

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We spent the last three weeks in Turkey. Most of that time we were in Istanbul, staying at the fantastic Grand Ant Hotel, and taking language classes at the EF Institute; we figured that if regular travel to Turkey was on the roster for the foreseeable future, we should get to know the language. We had some very nice meals and visits with my family in Istanbul, and with my father's school friends across the country.

We saw a lot of the usual tourist things, as well. I have photos (there are also photos on my Flickr page with decent captions, if you are impatient). But mostly I wanted to write some about the experience of visiting Turkey as an American, what the country is like and how to get around. The sort of stuff that's harder to find on everybody's Flickr pages or travelogues.

The Blue Mosque

For one thing, everybody shows you this. It's the Blue Mosque. It's beautiful. You really can't appreciate how beautiful in a photograph. The scale of things in Turkey was unbelievable. I'm used to the American scale of beauty, which is also unbelievable, but I expected Turkey to be more like Europe, where you see a cathedral and instead of being this massive huge thing it's kind of tucked into a corner surrounded by lottery ticket sellers and show stores, and the scale is, well, sometimes a bit of a letdown.

Turkey was none of that.

Small amphitheater at Efes

In our last week there, we took a driving trip around the country. Our first real stop was Efes (commonly known as Ephesus by Europeans). This is the small amphitheater, which has the most amazing views out over the hills and down through the valley, just impossible to take in in one gulp. This was when I really regretted leaving my big wide lens at home, because this was where 180 degrees of view would have been amazing.

In the big amphitheater

I spent a few minutes just sitting and experiencing the size of the big amphitheater. It was amazing. In the way that a huge sports complex can't be amazing because the scale is a little too large and perfect to be believable. Do you see me there? Can you see the people on the very top row, standing by the brown grass?

Likewise, the next day we visited Pamukkale (literally "Cotton Castle"), where there are hot springs.


That red arrow points out people hiking up the rocks to visit the pools.

Turkey is a very big place.

Also, Turkey is full of cats. None of the guidebooks ever mention this, but the place is crazy with them, especially Istanbul.

Cat outside the school

I'm not sure whether Turks are the most cat-crazy nation on earth or whether they are just big suckers, because they let those cats get into everything and everywhere.

Cat in a yarn shop

This one was curled up in a yarn shop. I can't even imagine that working out in the US. But for the most part the cats are also well-behaved, and don't get into too much trouble. They also don't really get fed or cared for, and I never once saw a cat who was easily handled or for that matter had been fixed, but the deal seems to work out OK for both sides.

These are things you don't find in a series of photos or most travel guides. So over the next couple of posts I thought I would write a bit about people and places in Turkey, and what it's like to visit there on a more general note. And I hope you enjoy it more than just a guided tour of photos.

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