Motown love: Why I’m (still) on the D(etroit) train

Me and baby Vera at the old Tigers' stadium, Corktown, Detroit.

Me and baby Vera at the old Tigers’ stadium, Corktown, Detroit.

This is a post I’ve been kicking around for awhile, and with the news of Detroit’s sad but not unexpected bankruptcy, it seemed more important than ever to get off my chest. I have a feeling about the city that I can best describe as visceral, fierce, and sometimes unjustifiable. It is not a place for those with delicate sensibilities or without serious street smarts. I’ve written a bit of background on why we are thinking of leaving NYC after nearly fifteen years and what we are looking for in a future home, and some musings on what life might be like in another place. Detroit was the city that started our NYC “expat fantasies,” starting as a cheap real estate joke (“Why don’t we just buy a house rather than get a hotel room for the weekend?”), evolving into an appreciation of “ruin porn” and pioneer spirit, and occasionally a bone of contention over its inherent dangers and drawbacks. Despite its fairly serious issues, I have a deep and complicated crush on Detroit I can’t shake off, or even explain easily. While I was originally planning to write a straight-forward list of how it fit my personal qualifications for a home base (the excellent airport and proximity to water are two big pluses), Motown’s charms are less simple and quantifiable than that.

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So you’re visiting Istanbul: read this

Istanbul-Bosphorus250MN052213After living in Istanbul for over two years, I’ve amassed a fair bit of advice and recommendations for visitors. Every few months, especially towards summer, I get emails from friends and friends-of-friends wondering what they should do with a day/week/month in the city. So rather than continue sending the same email around, I thought I’d collect everything I’ve written or forwarded into one post, from the general to the specific.

Google Map of my favorite Istanbul spots

Misconceptions about Istanbul: Chances are, if you are planning a trip to Turkey, you don’t think everyone rides camels and has a harem. But in case you have a nervous aunt, you can send her this post.

Istanbul in 2 days: my very quick-and-dirty advice for first-timers. A few updates:  if it’s a reasonable drinking hour, look for a rooftop bar to see the city instead of Galata Tower; Buyuk Hotel Londra is my favorite. Also, the Ortakoy mosque is under renovation, but the neighborhood is still fun to visit.

From EatingAsia.com: How to get the most out of Istanbul. Advice so great I wish I’d written it myself. They also have great stories about lesser-known spots all around Turkey, such a drool-worthy quest for anchovies.

Your Turkish food gurus are the good people at Istanbul Eats/Culinary Backstreets, with a blog, a book, an app, and excellent city tours to help you find amazing hole-in-the-wall eateries.

More great food tips from the Rome-based (but also well versed in Turkish food) Katie Parla, who now has a spiffy new app for the city.

Istanbul on and off the beaten path: A fairly standard list, but I wanted to compare the standard tourist attractions with some lesser-known spots.

Where to shop outside the Grand Bazaar: Note: the wonderful Kagithane House of Paper no longer has a shop in Galata, but they still have stores in Nisantasi and inside Bej Kahve in Karakoy.

Istanbul after dark Another oldie but goodie I wrote in my early months on Gadling, mostly to post about

Google map of my favorite places in Nisantasi

SantralIstanbul: One of my very favorite off-the-beaten-track museums. I last visited it with a friend when I was eight months pregnant and had the “brilliant” idea of taking the ferry. We hired a small boat to take us the rest of the way, and while sitting on the smelly Golden Horn with a strange and sketchy-looking man was less idyllic than imagined, it was an experience.

Eating kosher in Muslim Istanbul: Not relevant for too many visitors, and not the most useful post if you are hoping for a bevy of options, I’m afraid, but thought I’d share our experience with a past guest.

Leaving NYC: Future Possibilities?

This morning I left my apartment for the week with some relative strangers, saying goodbye to the decaying and too-big bathroom vanity and doorless kitchen cabinets. (Thanks to a past project of my husband’s, we have had no doors on our kitchen cabinets for eight years.) Contractors are starting today on a total renovation of our kitchen (a dishwasher at last!) and partial rehab of the bathroom (swapping vanity for a pedestal sink), and we are getting out of Dodge during the major work. We are doing this work less for ourselves and more to lure in prospective buyers to our apartment, as we are planning to put it on the market after we fix it up and hope the improvements pay off in the sale.

We still don’t know where to live next.

We have thought a lot about the perfect place to live next. We have taken a lot of weekend trips, have every Realtor/Zillow/Trulia app installed with filters set up (pre-1950, 3+ bedrooms, 2+ bathrooms, keyword: fireplace), and talk about potential towns with nearly every person we meet. Last night I started imagining what life could be like come January, once we have moved away from Brooklyn for a few months and what life could be like down the line. Here’s what I imagine:

(Note: this is entirely fictional and at least mildly satirical, so don’t think I’m insulting your town).

Wayland, Massachusetts
After 5 months: Wow, I forgot how pleasant life could be! The winter has been rough, but we light a fire every night and go snowshoeing on Saturday mornings! Sure, it’s a little isolated, but like going to a country inn every night! We can leave our doors unlocked, haven’t seen homeless people in weeks, and have multiple Trader Joe’s within a few miles! I did have to learn to drive at last, since I need a car to even get to the mailbox, but there is plenty of land for me to practice not hitting trees. It’s a little, uh, homogenous here, but downtown Boston is just a 15-minute drive plus a one-hour train ride away!
After 5 years: After V started school, I went back to PR full-time with a local hotel, and A got a job with an insurance firm in downtown Boston. Commuting sucks! I miss getting on the train and reading a book, but at least they still play Car Talk reruns on the radio. We’d like to have another kid, but not sure how we can afford it, between heating the house for eight months of the year, driving two cars into the city every day, the lawn guy, V’s ballet lessons, and the new barn for next year’s chicks. #SuburbanProblems

Detroit, Michigan
After 5 months: We miss being able to walk to the store, or anywhere for that matter, but parking is easy. We can’t leave anything in the car (have already replaced the windows twice) or it gets stolen, but that’s, like, any big city, right? You should see our house, it is huge! We have rooms we don’t even go into, which works since we can’t afford the heat for 5,000 square feet (gas costs more than our mortgage!). Midwestern winters are NO JOKE. Next spring, we’d like to plant some vegetables, but we get so much great stuff from Eastern Market every week, and it’s already biked in from across town. A is traveling a lot, but we are keeping busy with lots of projects and business ideas. Wonder if Idlewild Books would want to franchise here?
After 5 years: We are SO glad we got into Motown early! After Instagram opened up their headquarters downtown, the hipster population just exploded, and now you can’t buy an old house in the city proper for love nor money! A is about to open an office space for his consulting practice, and the travel cookbook store business is doing really well, plus we host a lot of local and visiting chefs for demos. I’m usually there on the weekend, or at the Market selling our local, biodynamic, halal, non-alcoholic wine (Michigan fruit rules!). We could get a sibling discount at the Waldorf school, but we have a good thing going with the only child, and V has made tons of friends at her Lil’ Motown Music lessons!

Raleigh, North Carolina
After 5 months: So while V is little, we figured it made sense to move near family. Took some convincing to move A down south, and we NEVER talk politics with anyone, but it’s as Yankee as the south gets, I guess. We miss non-chain restaurants and go to the same few places downtown over and over, but we finally get baby-free nights now that we are near my mother! The summers here are NO JOKE, but I’m not convinced it’s any worse than a NYC subway station in July. Think I’ve finally made up from my lack of pork consumption from two years in Istanbul in just a few months!
After 5 years: We just moved back north, A got a job offer in Connecticut we just couldn’t resist. Now that we have four kids (!), it’s going to be a little challenging, but after my sister moved with her family back to Mississippi, and my mother retired to the coast, we didn’t have much help in Raleigh anyway. Will be nice to have easier access to traveling abroad again, though not sure how well we’d manage an airport these days. Were people always so rude up here?!

Portland, Oregon
After 5 months: It is seriously pleasant here, but I constantly feel like I’m waking up from a nap: refreshed but slightly panicked, like I’ve missed something. Feeling a little house poor, but worth it to get something with a little history and community, right? We eat and drink almost all local, are coming around to composting, and just feel healthier. I finally learned how to ride a bike and no one even honks at me when I do something wrong! Not sure what I’m going to do career-wise, though it seems like everyone is hot for Portland. Wonder if Idlewild Books would want to franchise here?
After 5 years: It’s been years since we left NYC, but somehow I feel younger than ever! We try not to eat anything unless we know at least one person who helped make it, though we sneak in some fast food when we travel (after the GMO ban, I still crave some McNuggets occasionally!). Though we don’t travel so much these days, flights are expensive and we have a lot going on here. We weren’t sure having a second child was totally ethical, but Pyotr just sort of, uh, happened, what with all the natural living. I’m often at the vineyard, working on the next blend of our local, biodynamic, halal, non-alcoholic wine (Oregon fruit rules!). We have almost finished irrigating the mini-farm we have out back, plus we want to start salvaging wood for the new barn for next year’s chicks.

The Turkish Airlines deal that wasn’t

Note: I originally wrote this a year ago, but never published it. They run the same promo every year, in case your travel plans are less complicated.

This week, I discovered a stellar fare sale on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to the United States (as well as many other destinations in Asia and Africa) for 999 euro in business class, 399 in coach, with a second passenger for just 1 euro more (even less for Europe and the Middle East). Aimed at Valentine’s Day travel, the departure dates all fall in the week leading up to February 14, and there are four US gateways for Turkish Airlines: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. As I’m due to fly to the US next month for a wedding in Austin, I jumped at the chance: $1300! In business!

The deal is only bookable by phone, and while I seemed to have some language issues with the Turkish reservation agent (“fare sale” and “campaign” was confusing, “promotion” was the magic word), she was helpful and patiently checked all the routes. New York and LA were sold out, but she managed to find a pair of seats nonstop to Chicago from February 14-22. The maximum stay for the deal is eight days, and while I hoped to spend more time home in the US, it would have to do. The grand total for two adults in business with all taxes and fees would come to a little over $2,000, at least $400 less than ONE business class seat from Istanbul to Chicago with a stopover on a less-preferable airline. I happily made the reservation with 24 hours to call back and purchase. $2000 for two! In business!

There was just one small problem: I’m traveling with my baby. When I spoke to the first reservation agent, she explained that I would have to purchase the baby’s seat for a non-promotional fare AT the airport and she couldn’t add her to the reservation. This seemed like a confusing and potentially expensive plan, but I figured I’d sort it out when I called back to ticket. On most airlines, lap infants pay 10% of adult fare for international flights (usually free on domestic flights) and a quick search online estimated this to be up to $500 for the same flights. But still: $2500 for a family! In business!

Though I booked the second seat in my husband’s name, I knew it was a long shot that he’d be able to travel with us, so I offered up the deal on Facebook. Not everyone is able to fly off to America for eight days with three weeks notice (especially for Turks who have to apply for advance visas), but I soon found a friend who thought she might be able to swing it. Sure, she wanted to visit New York and not Chicago, and I’d still have to book flights from Chicago to Austin to New York and back to Chicago, but those would cost under $500. $3000 to and around America! Some of it in business!

After a few frantic hours of searching hotels and domestic flight schedules, my friend reluctantly decided that she couldn’t go after all. We were disappointed, but I understood it was hard to make such big plans under pressure, and maybe we’d still find seats available closer to the date. Maybe I’d be able to just book the baby in the second seat, as ridiculous it sounded for a seven-month-old infant, it’d be cheaper to just eat the cost of the second seat than to book at regular price. Unfortunately, when I called back to book, I learned that the baby could not fly in the second seat, it would have to be an adult. Furthermore, we’d be looking at full fare for the two of us. $5000?! In business?!

More questions and searches by the reservation agent yielded that I COULD book the baby’s ticket at the airport or with the reservations office after booking, at a more reasonable $465 for her. The catch was that both adults on the promo fare would have to fly all legs of the trip, or the tickets would be canceled and the fare forfeited, so if I booked a ticket for another person who didn’t show, none of us would be flying. I briefly considered stopping random strangers on the street to see if they could fly to Chicago, until I decided it might be a sign. Maybe it wasn’t the right deal for us. Maybe I should wait to book tickets on flights I actually wanted, for the right time frame, when even my husband could fly with us. Then we’d really be in business.

Epilogue:  In the end, we booked tickets through Husband’s work, got stuck at the airport for 12 hours due to a strike in Frankfurt, missed the friend’s wedding in Austin, and spent a very quick weekend in NYC. But that’s another story…

Escape from New York (?)

My family at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where we were married June 6, 2004.

If you’ve been looking for me on the interwebs, you might want to direct your browser over to KnockedUpAbroadTravels.com, or better yet, Facebook or Twitter.  If you’ve been wondering about all the Detroit links and thoughts about other cities I’ve been posting on those social networks, keep reading. We arrived back in Brooklyn on Labor Day, after a month of travel in New Zealand and South Korea, and over two years living in Istanbul. Since arriving back, in between trips to Target and IKEA (moving back into an apartment after a few years away is nearly as much work as moving anew), we’ve been pondering what’s next for us. Ideally, we’d be packing and planning for another overseas assignment, but as life rarely happens as you plan, we’re looking for a plan B as well as a new place to call home, whether it’s in between expat stints or for the long haul. My husband’s consulting job has moved from client-side to pre-sales, and he can now pretty much work in his underwear from a coffee shop or from home anywhere in the US. Since moving abroad and having a baby, I’ve been working freelance in travel writing (need an article about Istanbul or travel with a baby? Email me) and public relations, and hope to stay more or less at home for a bit longer, especially  in a place where daycare isn’t on par with college tuition.

Perusing real estate ads and feeling a bit confined in our one-bedroom in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, we’ve come to the conclusion that IF we a) sell our apartment with a decent profit AND b) I go back to work full time, we can maybe afford a decent two-bedroom and be slaves to a mortgage and exorbitant NYC daycare costs. OR we could move to Detroit (yes, Detroit, really). But before I get to that, here’s some background on what we are looking for in our next city: Continue reading

Favorite reads of 2011

It’s the first day of the new year, and I may have missed the time for year-end lists, I wanted to first compile a list of my favorite articles and blog posts of 2011. Living in a foreign country and having a baby isn’t conducive to reading books (something I’m hoping to change in 2012, regardless of baby or country), but I do read a lot of blogs and online media. Getting an iPad this summer was the best pre-baby gift ever, since it means I can read in the dark during the many middle-of-the-night feedings, and I also recommend the Instapaper app for offline reading.  Thanks to the new Facebook timeline, I was able to review a lot of favorite links that I’ve posted, along with a search through Google chats, sent mail, and other archives.

In no particular order, these are the stories that I found most interesting, funny, thought-provoking, and forward/Twitter/Facebook/Google+/conversation-worthy:

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Knocked up abroad: the baby travel round-up

Yesterday, I wrote about why I’m traveling with Vera. Since I began traveling with her four months ago, my Knocked Up Abroad column on Gadling has grown up too. What started as a chronicle of my experiences being pregnant in Istanbul and traveling in each trimester has now become an attempt at showing that it is possible to still travel with a baby. I’m fortunate to reach an audience that is already traveling and may also have a baby, and I hope to inspire more parents to travel.

Here’s a quick round-up of my travel-with-baby stories so far:

-The baby-friendly difference: How Turkey is one of the most baby-crazy places in the world and why it makes every day easier.

-Applying for a baby’s passport: The comedy of errors we went through getting Vera’s passport and that silly picture that will serve as her primary ID for the first five years.

-Planning travel with a baby: Choosing and researching a destination, packing light, scheduling around baby, and the merits of an apartment rental.

-Flying with a baby: Going stroller-less, making friends and getting help on the plane and at the airport, and ensuring baby doesn’t cry (much).

-International travel with baby: On-the-ground advice about attitude, planning and then letting go of your itinerary, conversions, and other lessons learned.

-The young family gift guide: The (mostly) Vera-tested, Meg-approved guide to gear and gadgets that make baby travel easier.

Next week, I’ll get into specific destinations like Istanbul, Venice, and London, and how to tackle them with a baby.