General Assembly in Istanbul through Margaret's eyes

For many years now, I have wanted to go to Istanbul. So, you can imagine my delight when I saw that the 2016 AAG General Assembly was to be held there! I signed up immediately.

The arrival in the airport was a somewhat rude one, for despite having been told that I did not need a visa, the passport controller just glanced at my passport, then pointed to the far side of the arrivals hall, saying in a loud, gruff voice, just one word – VISA! Luckily the process of acquiring the said visa was pretty straightforward (€25), although, why some EU countries need one and others not, was/is not really clear.

There were nine of us on the plane from Geneva, so we decided to take taxis together. This turned out to be one people carrier, not quite big enough for nine people – Egidio, Bernadette, Marie-Noëlle, Sandra, Olivier, Veronique, Pauline, Barbara and yours truly – and the suitcases with the gala finery. However, in the end it was just as well we were packed in like sardines, as gazing out at the traffic might have been too terrifying – this way we did not have enough room to look out the windows!

And so, having safely negotiated the Istanbul traffic we arrived at the Ciragan Palace. The first impression you get is one of security – security at the gate, security entering the hotel – a SAFE arrival in a beautiful place! And what a place it was! We had a warm welcome from reception, a lovely glass of juice waiting for us, and this was just the beginning. There was a nice familiar feeling as the receptionist who greeted me and brought me up to my room was a Glion Alumna from Russia, Zarina Zubairova.

The Ciragan Palace definitely lives up to its name – the rooms were to die for, with balcony and view over the Bosporus – breath-taking, and we even had wine and goodies waiting for us in the room, compliments of the hotel. It was easy to understand that this was one of the important palaces of the sultans in the 19th century, including the exquisite Harem quarters, separate apartments, a separate entry, all equally magnificent.

Then down to “Le Fumoir”, all glass, candlelight, shadows, opening out into the garden which flowed towards the big arch leading straight out to the Bosporus, crying out for photo-taking, and then meeting the general manager – Ralph Radke, also regional vice-president of Kempinski, a Glion Alumnus too, 1980, and we ended the evening with a whisky… what a start to the Istanbul General Assembly!

Next day, there was sight-seeing, arranged by the trusty Sandra, after the renowned Ciragan breakfast, where we were greeted warmly by another Glion Alumnus, Quentin Danset, the restaurant manager. Today’s agenda was a guided tour of the Topkapi Palace. Apparently, even in Istanbul, it rains, so we had a wet start to our tour, locating our guide finally after making sure we got a good idea of the size of the place by running around from entrance to entrance. What an amazing place, so beautifully situated, right up on the headland protruding into the Bosporus, with breath-taking views all around – those people knew how to live! And the weather changed, the sun came out as we completed the wonderful tour of room after room of splendour, color and taste. But despite all this food for the soul, the hunger pangs began to take hold, so off we went to find a typical Turkish, side-of-the road café, flop onto cushions and have a traditional lunch of Gozleme made on the spot…

And then there was just enough time for a quick visit to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia before the real fun started – fighting the Istanbul, evening rush hour traffic! What an ordeal – 15 minutes in a stationary taxi, 20 minutes fast walking alongside the traffic, then a dash for another taxi with a debonair driver, whose main preoccupation was trying to flirt with Sandra! Despite frustration and impatience, we just made it in time to meet the group departing by bus for the evening’s dinner in another lovely restaurant, Sultanahmet Palace Restaurant, again perched on a headland overlooking the fantastic city. And now came the reunions, the meeting with old (and not-so-old) friends, photos were taken, conversation bubbling all over, more photos, and then back to our palace, the Ciragan, looking so majestic in the evening light.

Saturday dawned with the sky first turning pink over the water – just time for a swim before breakfast – you could lift your head when swimming and see out over the low wall to the Bosporus, the ships passing by, the buildings on the other side…. Wonderful! And then again that Ciragan Palace breakfast – something new every day. Today it was the special Turkish omelette, proposed by the waiter – the Menemen, with eggs, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, red peppers….. delicious!

And now began the Glion Assembly moment – and this was held in the old part of the palace, the rooms where the sultans had lived in the 19th century, glorious décor, majestic pillars, marble staircases, chandeliers, not to speak of the hospitality shown to us by Ralph and his team, coffee, tea, juice, water…..

The committee sat before us framed by the long, imperial windows and curtains – quite impressive. The meeting, chaired by Christian Beek, started out quietly with straight-forward discussion, approval of the financial statements, AAG achievements, and a marketing presentation from Scott. Then we moved on to the topic of the changes in Glion, especially regarding the sale of the school. And now the atmosphere got quite heated, with many members adamant that they should be kept in the information loop, as everything that happened to Glion concerned them just as much as present students and other stakeholders. Alumni members were surprised that so little information had been given. Christian and Fabienne deflected these questions and comments with diplomatic skill, as it was clear that the committee was in a difficult position, being unable to answer these specific questions, as they were as much in the dark about the situation as the rest of us. But the members definitely wanted more information.

The other more unusual aspect of this General Assembly was the election of a new committee member, and this time it was a real election, with paper ballots, counting of votes, as there were two candidates, Mendes Cavin and Pauline Ladsous. Each presented their candidature with a PPT, and finally Pauline was elected. The proceedings had to be ended quickly as it was time for a light Ciragan lunch, and then departure on foot for the Dolmabahche Palace.

In contrast to the Topkapi Palace, this one was built by the sultans as part of the new modern approach, so it has more western influence in it. But what an experience – Baccarat glass everywhere, the original floor coverings, curtains, and very strict guides, only letting so many people into the different rooms. By now the weather was much better, sun shining on the Bosporus, making so many great photo opportunities down by the water, through the majestic arches, with the magnificent palace in the background, and the towers and minarets across the water!

And so it went on, back to our own special palace to prepare for the gala evening, and what a gala it was – such gala-like surroundings, once again in the older part of the building, the sultans’ Ciragan Palace. And then the fun started – apéro, canapés, dinner, the raffle, prize-giving, and then the dancing…..

Next day, which for some had started hours before, the plan was a leisurely breakfast, then a trip on the Bosporus – towards The Black Sea – in sunshine and lovely temperatures. And this is precisely what we did with a couple of stopovers, one to the Beylerbeyi Palace, another for a walk around a residential area in the sunshine, with spring flowers and blossoms sprouting all around us.

And the final evening – a walk to Ortakoy, through a mini market area, past a floodlit mosque, reflected in the water of the Bosporus, and then dinner in a local restaurant – uncomplicated, good food, and very pleasant staff. The walk home was interspersed with a little shopping, colourful stalls in the narrow alleys, and then bed!

And so we were now at the end of our wonderful assembly in Istanbul – but not without another great Ciragan breakfast, a quick dash to the concierge to get last minute postcards, goodbyes all round, and then once again, the squash into the taxi-bus – the same nine people into the just too small sized bus, so the wheel had come full circle, and we were all still smiling and joking – it had been such a great experience, full of interesting new encounters, full of history, culture, not forgetting the food and drink, and above all the Glion Assembly of old friends coming together to keep their friendships alive, and to enjoy each other’s company.

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