Saturday, March 31, 2012

International School Job Fairs: Fast and Furious Part 2 - Hong Kong Drift

In my last post of this title I attempted to give you an idea of how one goes about securing a position at an international school via an int'l school job fair. So that was the story of how we landed our first gig in Frankfurt, Germany.  Three years later we were feeling the need for a change and we decided to activate our SEARCH Associates profiles and start looking again.

This time around we knew that we had more experience and would be better candidates.  The difference was that we were looking for two positions instead of one, which requires a bit more luck and the best of timing.  As before we were open to go anywhere in order to keep our options open, and we signed up to attend a job fair in London this past January.  It was just as busy, nearly as stressful, yet ended with a slightly different result.

The flow of the fair was similar to last time: interview sign-ups on Friday, interviews on Saturday/Sunday and if all goes offer before leaving on Sunday afternoon.  We came in to the fair with the intentions of interviewing at a few schools:  Munich, Frankfurt (another school obviously), Hong Kong, London, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Lima.  I should preface this with the fact that we had already received several initial contacts from interested schools, which led to a skype interview with a school in Hong Kong.  The skype interview actually culminated with an offer for both of us, which was a huge confidence booster going into the fair.  Nevertheless, we went on with the fair and tried our luck at the interview sign-up on Friday.

The large conference room was packed with candidates and was wall-to-wall with representatives from schools around the world - alphabetical by country.  We inched around and stood in lines to secure interviews with schools in London, Leipzig, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Ho Chi Minh City.  We went to bed exhausted on Friday after working through the week, traveling to London, and putting our best foot forward to nail down a few interviews for Saturday.  We knew that Saturday would be equally busy and could possibly decide where we would be spending the next two years.

Saturday was full of interviews and information sessions on potential schools.  It was beginning to lean toward offers in London for both of us at different schools or a separate offer for Marisa at another school in Hong Kong.  Ho Chi Minh City was a bust because the offer wasn't a good fit - nor was the fit in Indonesia. We had a really great conversation with the director in Saudi Arabia, but one of the jobs was already taken.  He really tried to make it happen anyways, but without a perfect fit the Middle East would be a tough sell.  Let's just say it was quickly narrowing down to London and Hong Kong.  We really wanted Munich to happen, but the positions weren't certain and we found that people don't want to interview candidates for potential positions with the limited time at a job fair.  Leipzig also wasn't a strong fit.  It seemed that Germany wasn't in the cards.  While nothing was officially on the table, we began discussing the pros and cons between London and Hong Kong as we called it a night on Saturday.

Whereas at our first job fair we were able to accept a position on Sunday and walk away with something in hand, this time it wasn't the case.  Marisa turned down the offer in Hong Kong because it would be a little too much for her to handle while continuing her grad school work.  However, we made a strong impression on our two schools in London and came away with all but an official offer.  It was evident that more experience doesn't necessarily guarantee multiple offers at teaching fairs.  It's more about timing and luck.  It was still early in the game of recruiting, but we couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that we didn't have multiple offers to choose from as we had expected.  

We spent the next 2-3 weeks mulling over our options and flip-flopping between envisioning two years in London vs. Hong Kong and comparing the packages and in the end we decided on Hong Kong!  We've heard amazing things from our colleagues that have both lived and traveled there and it seems like an excellent, central place in Asia to live in and travel from.  At times it still sounds kind of extreme, but hey, you can do anything for two years, right?

So, now you'll be getting a few more months of European adventures before we head back to the United States for the summer and then on to the other side of the world.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Istanbul was once Constantinople - Part Three: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Bosphorus Strait

To wrap up this series on Istanbul, this post will highlight a few more of the sights and experiences that Istanbul has to offer.

One of the first sites that we checked out was the underground cisterns that date back to the 6th century, during the Byzantine emperor Justinian's rule.  We were blown away by the size of this place and all of the lighting really made it feel a little eery.  At the time of its use, water would fill this entire chamber and serve as a freshwater supply for the city, holding around 27 million gallons!  Apparently this place was even used in the James' Bond movie "From Russia With Love".

Basilica Cistern - as it is often referred to, since it was built on the site of an old basilica.  The Turks refer to it by a name which translates to "sunken palace".

One of the highlights in the cisterns is the massive pair of Medusa head blocks that serve as the base of two columns in a far corner.  You can just make out the snakes that make up the gorgon's head.

Probably the most famous site in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia - pronounced "Ay-a Sof-ee-a" (meaning "divine wisdom").  It was originally built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian during the 6th century to be the main church of Constantinople, and the empire - kind of like the Vatican in Rome.  Later it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1453.  Now it serves as a museum.  Its massive in size, with the inside supposedly being able to house the Statue of Liberty in its entirety (minus the torch).

Hagia Sophia from the outside.  You can see how it looks like it could've been a large church with minarets added centuries later.

Marisa made sure to tote around the Rick Steve's book, which served us well in this city.  He apparently loves Istanbul because his book was chalk-full of historical facts and interesting places to see.

You can get an idea of the size of the interior from this balcony - notice the chandeliers below on the ground floor where Marisa was previously standing.

Hagia Sophia - I love it when you get the sun beams making their way across a shot.

You see so many stained-glass windows in cathedrals with Biblical scenes throughout Europe, so it was interesting to see one in more of an eastern style.

Istanbul also has its share of exciting markets.  The Grand Bazaar resembles a sprawling indoor/outdoor mall that has pretty much anything you can think of.

There are some areas set aside for different types of goods, but we honestly didn't get too caught up in this place because most of it looked like cheap merchandise.

Dried fruits at the Spice Market.

Turkish delight (white stuff), dried fruits, and nuts.  By the way, we found that the only way to enjoy Turkish Delight is when its covered in chocolate.

View of the Spice Market.

One shouldn't visit Istanbul without stopping by the Topkapi Palace, which was built on a hill which was the site of Byzantium (ancient Greek settlement).  It was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet in the 1470's as an administrative complex, but was later converted into a palace by Suleyman the Magnificent a century later.  This palace was used by the Ottomans until the mid-19th century when they opted for a new Euro-style palace on the Bosphorus Strait.

Gate of Salutation - Topkapi Palace

Baghdad Pavilion - built by Sultan Murat IV to celebrate his conquest of Baghdad

Part of our palace tour included a visit to the Harem, which isn't quite what our western view had previously thought.  The Harem was a private set of apartments and living spaces where some of the Sultans wives and concubines lived - along with the Sultan's mother!  While we typically think of concubines as sex slaves and a Harem as the setting for a huge orgy, this apparently wasn't the case at all.  There were limits as to how many women could be concubines and they were treated with dignity and respect, similarly to his wives.  The practical use of the Harem was simply to ensure that an heir would be produced to maintain power in the empire.

Fancy tilework adorned practically the entire Harem complex.

As far as experiences go, it's pretty popular to hang out in the hookah bars.  This was my first experience and I found it anti-climatic, not that I expected much.  You basically pay for flavored tobacco, which is a very mild blend.  The attendants lock it and load it and keep hot coals over the bowl to keep it lit.  It is a relaxing atmosphere with comfortable couches and pillows at ground-level, but the hookah doesn't do a whole lot for you.

We randomly ran into these two gals from our school in the middle of the Grand Bazaar and caught up with them outside of our hotel for hookah and dinner.

There was an imbalance of estrogen, so I kept my eye on the television in order to maintain a low profile.

One last experience that I'd recommend is a boat cruise down the Bosphorus Strait, separating Europe from Asia.  The cruise takes about 1.5 hours each way with a 3-hour stop for lunch at a little fishing village.

We passed quite a few fishermen out doing their thing in the strait.

I'm pretty sure that this is the palace that the Ottomans used beginning in the mid-19th century.

We had some nice views on both sides of the boat along the cruise, including these fortifications.  This is the Rumeli Fortress, built by Sultan Mehmet II just before he conquered Istanbul for the Ottomans in 1453.  They added this to a second set of fortifications on the other side of the strait in order to cut off Constantinople from any supplies coming in.

In the distance behind me is where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Black Sea.

This was a fort that we hiked up to during our lunch stop - it's where the previous pictures were taken.

Coming back into port, you can see the fishermen who line the bridge practically all day, with a really neat silhouette of the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent in the background (at least I'm pretty sure that's the one).

Istanbul was an amazing city that I would recommend to anyone living or traveling in Europe.  There is such a rich history here with many cultural and architectural overlaps over the centuries that make it a unique place to visit.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Istanbul was once Constantinople - Part Two: Mosaics

Being the bridge between Europe and Asia, Istanbul has been a natural crossroads for several major empires throughout its history.  It has been occupied by the Romans, Macedonians, Persians, Byzantines, and Ottomans before becoming a major city in the modern country of Turkey.  With all of that changeover throughout the centuries, there is an interesting mixture of architecture in Istanbul.

During the 14th century, the ruling Byzantines (by then a declining empire) put their mark on the city with beautiful mosaics in the Chora Church, which are sometimes compared with the mosaics in Ravenna, Italy in the Basilica of San Vitale.  The latter mosaics were actually built much earlier, however, in the sixth century by Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Besides the Chora Church, we also came across some lovely mosaics inside the Hagia Sophia.  Check them out:

Atop one of the entrances into the Hagia Sophia is this sparkling gold mosaic depicting a guy offering up the Hagia Sophia (originally a Byzantine church) to Christ.

On the right, there's another fella that's offering the city of Constantinople (named after emperor Constantine) to Christ.

Inside the Hagia Sophia you pass under this archway into the main room.  I was very impressed with the detailed color and shading of these mosaics.

On the top floor of the Hagia Sophia is this wall with a damaged mosaic of Christ, John the Baptist, and one other figure.  Again, the detail of the facial expression of John was striking.

The Chora Church is a nice little gem in Istanbul that is covered head-to-toe with more mosaics.  Most of them are on the ceiling, giving your neck quite a workout.

Here Jesus is being tempted by Satan, depicted as a dark angel.

Everyone's favorite miracle, and Jesus' first - turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

Here the disciples and Jesus are looking at the leftover portions of bread and fish in the baskets after feeding the multitudes.

At the top of this dome we've got Mary and her ancestors.

In another dome we have Jesus and his Biblical genealogy.

Jesus and Mary, with the coloring on their faces resembling a painting.

Madonna and child

This ones called "Dormition of the Virgin"

This one is actually a fresco painted on the ceiling in the Chora Church depicting the Last Judgement.

One last cool ceiling fresco with the virgin and child surrounded by angels.

Next, we'll be looking at some more sites in Istanbul.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Istanbul was once Constantinople... - Part One: Mosques

We had been wanting to visit Istanbul, Turkey ever since we moved to Germany and we finally took our chance in February.  We spent about five days in this incredible city and we're going to share it with you in a series of posts.  The first of these posts will cover the major mosques that we visited, since this was a very new experience for us.  In this post I will highlight the Blue Mosque, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, and "   " Mosque, as well as etiquette while visiting.

So mosques are obviously a place for muslim worshippers to get together and connect with God, but they are so fascinating to me since we've been through so many European cathedrals with such a stark difference in architectural styles.  I'd hate to say that I'm bored of cathedrals, but visiting mosques was almost a breath of fresh air to be exposed to something nearly unknown to me.  Marisa and I saw plenty of them in Morocco, but Istanbul seemed to be much more liberal and open to allowing visitors to come in and take pictures and see just what goes down inside the mosques.  Here are Istanbul's top three:

The Blue Mosque was built in only 7 years (1609-1616) under Sultan Ahmet's rule by his architect, Mehmet Aga, who is also known for re-building Kaaba in Mecca (holiest shrine in Islam - huge black cube).  This was Ahmet's finest achievement under his rule in the Ottoman Empire.

Blue Mosque - sporting its six minarets, even though only one is needed for the call to prayer.

Blue Mosque - inner courtyard

View of the ceiling of Blue Mosque - mosques are very open structures, ornately decorated with geometric shapes and calligraphy since it is forbidden to adorn them with pictures of objects that may be idolized.

This view gives you a better idea of the height of the walls.  These chandeliers are suspended from the highest point of the ceiling, with lots of natural light flooding the space.  The entire floor is carpeted with spaces marked for individuals to take their place during services.

Inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque - there are typically fountains outside where worshipers can clean their hands and feet before entering.

Yet another view of the Blue Mosque from an outer courtyard.

The Blue Mosque at night.

The Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is next on our tour.  It was built by the guy its named after in 1557, taking only a decade to finish.  The architect was the famous Mimar Sinan, and this was his masterpiece.  It was difficult getting a shot of the outside, since it rests on a hill in the middle of a neighborhood.

Cemetery with mausoleum in the background, where Suleyman is buried.

The interior of Suleyman is not as over-the-top as in the Blue Mosque, but it is just as breathtaking.

View of the Golden Horn/Bosphorus Strait from the mosque.

Our last mosque was the Rustem Pasha mosque which is known for its quaintness and beautiful tilework inside.  It was also built by Sinan in the 16th century, as were about 20 other mosques under his guidance.  It's named after one of the Grand Viziers of Suleyman and it was a nice little gem to look at.

Interior tilework of Rustem Pasha

When visiting mosques, keep in mind a few basic rules:

1.  Shoes should be removed before entering.

2.  Proper attire should be worn inside - heads should be covered for women.

3.  Don't act a fool!  Just like you would in any cathedral that you visit, you don't talk so loud and show a little respect.

Some things that you will notice are:

There's always a central prayer niche which the worshipers face, since it indicates the direction to Mecca from that particular mosque.

Typically men and women are separate during worship.  The women stand in the back behind a latticed divider while men stand up front closer to the prayer niche.  They say that this is more of a practicality during worship so that the men aren't distracted.

Marisa's showing us the respectful way to visit a mosque.

In the next post we'll be talking about some exquisite mosaic work found around Istanbul.

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