the nothing whatever...

The Rest of Istanbul

Walking through Istanbul is like walking through Camelot, or maybe Gondor if it existed. The ancient mosques lurch out from the cityscape like medieval castles with an architectural majesty about them that is both beautiful and daunting in its scale, and the granite cobblestone streets give you the feeling you could be wandering not just through Istanbul, but through time itself, setting foot and hand upon things that have been witness to events beyond the memory of anybody alive today. Nic and I arrived here at approximately 6:30am after our 11 hour red-eye flight, and after a lengthy ordeal at the airport when we found out our transfer had not arrived to pick us up, we were finally able to unload our bags at our hotel at about 8am. The owners apologized for what must have been a slight miscommunication, and as we were exhausted and starving from our flight, they said that breakfast was currently being served on the top floor of the building and that we should go and help ourselves.

Breakfast was a showcase of how different Turkey was to be from that places we have been thus far. The early morning sun still carried with it the evenings crisp chill, the air had a springtime cleanliness, the traditional Turkish breakfast of yoghurt, goats fetta, tomato, cucumber, boiled eggs, olives and fresh bread were a welcome change up from noodles and curry, and the Blue Mosque’s solemn presence subliminally humbled us while we ate, like we were pigeons pecking at bread scattered at the feet of a forbearing statue. A fitting welcome to the city of Istanbul.

The city is divided into two segments by the Bosphorus, a passage of water that has been the subject of much trade and war since before the birth of Christianity, as it serves as the only aquatic passage into the Sea of Marmara from the Black Sea, and from Russia into the rest of Europe. Sultanahmet, where we are located, is on the Southern side of the city, and is the location of numerous structures created in the name of religious devotion (the actual religion having changed over years of war and conquest) and palaces that have been home to various influential and tyrannical historical figures. It is really weird having directions described to you in such a blahse’ way:

“Hello, you look lost.”

“We are, which way to the Grand Bazaar?”

“Well, see the top of that building there (the Ayasofya, the mosque-turned-museum originally built as a church before the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453), you follow this path until it is at your right, then look left and you will see a large pole with drawings on it (the “Obelisk of Theodosius”, with the drawings being ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, erected by Emperor Constantius the Second in 300 AD), then after that, another sort of swirly pole that has been broken in half (known as the “Serpent Column”, an ancient bronze pole made by two interwoven snakes, built to commemorate the Greeks who defeated the Persians in 479 BC), go past those then turn right and go down…”

With all these relics that are sights in themselves, you can find yourself getting nowhere fast.

Another distraction is the people. I have often envied the lives of extroverts, the way they are able to approach the world and its people with such conviction in themselves, manufacturing introductions and conversations out of thin air. For those of you who have read Neil Strauss’s “The Game”, Istanbul seems to be a city full of “Dustins”, people who just know exactly what to say at the right time to make you feel comfortable with the dynamic of the conversation even if there is some underlying level of courtship involved. I will often find myself embroiled in very personal dialogue with somebody who will tactfully and seamlessly drift the conversation on to his desired topic of Turkish rugs and carpets, and then I suddenly realize that I have just been speaking to a salesman about some of the more private areas my life for the past half-hour. The salesmen would be easier to spot if the general Turkish populous weren’t so inclined to start a similar sort of friendly conversation out of the blue, and at times I have found myself having to pretend I didn’t hear people saying “Hello! James Bond!” to me because I am not sure of what I will get (they all call me “James Bond” because of the recent film’s location…and because I’m a bad-ass crime fighter).

On our second or third day, when we were a bit oblivious to this over-familiarity, a Turkish guy who was about our age said to us as we walked past “yes, you are Australians, I love Australians”. I laughed at his enthusiasm (and at the surety with which he knew our nationality) and when he put out his hand for a handshake, and I gave him that courtesy. Nic and I were locked in, speaking and joking and laughing, playfully knocking one another, until finally the conversation had drifted from where we were from to where we were headed to what we were doing there, to where we were living while we did it, to how long we would be there, to if we needed a Turkish rug for our apartment in Vancouver that we did not yet own. I think he already expected a response in the negative, so he did not press too hard, but before we left he gave us his card and said “my shop is just down there, if you wanna stop by for an apple-tea and a chat then I am there every day”. And he was such a nice guy, I made a promise to myself that I would do just that.

I must mention something that happened to me in Jakarta that did not make it into the blog but contributed to my thought-process when I decided to visit him in his shop. Upon landing in the capital of Indonesia, there were about a hundred cab drivers pestering me for the fare, and we ended up randomly picking one who just happened to live close to the hotel we were staying at. He wasn’t exactly the pleasant type, but he (almost surprisingly and with a sense of pride) pointed out his house (his “house” being a tiny straw shack without walls that had a mat that hovering a meter above the ground) on our way through the grubby overpopulated alleys that served as a shortcut to our gated and guarded hotel. When he first pointed it out, all I saw were a few little run down Warungs and nowhere remotely livable, so I didn’t know what to say other than a half-impressed “ahhh ok”. We arrived at the hotel and realized we had no cash on us, so I volunteered myself to go wandering back through the streets that seemed like they would not be very tourist (or woman) friendly. Well, of course, on the way back I walked straight past his little hut, and we must have been his last fare as he and a group of other cab drivers were all sitting on little stools and drinking glasses containing liquids of strange colors, wedged in a tiny gap between his hut and the next Warung, all of them laughing boisterously and having a great time. He stood to his feet when he saw me and called me over (as if we had known one another quite well), holding up his filthy glass of black and asking if I drink coffee. It was one of those scenarios where the safest path you can take is perhaps the most offensive, and is also the most likely to create embarrassment from what is more than likely a gesture of accommodation. I accepted his offer of a coffee and became a novelty for the cab drivers for the next twenty or so minutes, with more and more cabbies arriving at this arbitrary location and breaking into fits of laughter when they saw some random fuzzy-haired oversize westerner drinking his filthy glass of black (that I offered to pay for, with all of them waving away my money and telling me it was sorted). Even though I could tell at times they were laughing more at me than with me, they were all really friendly, and seeing the gleam of pride that our driver seemed to be carrying made me feel like I had made the right decision.

So, when I was offered this glass of apple-tea by the young Turkish guy who I had spoken with the previous day, I took it as being the same sort of accommodating gesture as that of the Indonesian cab-driver, someone proud of what they had and their ability to accommodate foreigners using it. We knew we were in trouble when he took us past the front displays and into a darker area at the rear of the store, where there were three couches facing an array of different rugs, all patterned and colored differently. We were seated on the center couch, the halogen lights above were switched on in dramatic fashion, and as we had the apple-teas placed on the coffee table in front of us, he began to speak about each rug in depth, talking about its origins and the colors that it compliments. I nodded along for a while, thinking that he might just be completely infatuated with Turkish rugs, but eventually he laid the question on me:

“So, which of these interests you?”

“None. Remember, we don’t even have a place to put them.”

“But you can send them back home…”

“Nah, sorry mate. I’m not interested in buying a rug.”

“Not interested?” he looked at me incredulously, “Then what do you want from here?”

I sat and thought for a moment, aware of the misunderstanding but also wanting to make it clear I didn’t deliberately intend to waste his time.

“A tea and a conversation?”

He laughed, but I could tell he was still a bit irate, and the next twenty minutes or so were quite awkward while we drank the rest of our tea in relative silence. It wasn’t till later that I read the Lonely Planet and found a section specifically saying that the offer of a tea is the initial stages of bargaining, and having accepted I had unknowingly given him the impression that I intended to buy, I just didn’t know what. Another subtle cultural difference that acts as a trap to catch naïve idiots like me. On the plus side though, for the first time I think I got the better side the bargain. A couple of free apple-teas.

As I brushed on, the food in Turkey has been completely different to what we have been eating, but it has also been phenomenal. Eggplant is a fruit (?) that I have rarely eaten and have never had the nerve to cook with, but Turkey has opened up my eyes to the culinary possibilities of the humble aubergine. The Eggplant Moussaka is a dish that blows my mind every time I have ordered it, and anything stuffed in Eggplant makes me wonder where it has been all my life. To add to this, the freebie is an institution in Turkey, so every meal we have had comes with its own bread and dipping sauces to ensure you are ready to burst by the end of the meal, with the complimentary Turkish tea to settle the stomach being the only thing that prevents you from doing so. Even buying bottled water from the corner store comes with a gratuity of some free mint chewing gum (or maybe old mate was just trying to tell me something).

And that about sums up Turkey. Well, it doesn’t really, we did a heap of other stuff; a Bosphorus boat ride, we got lost a thousand times in quaint little alleyways, ate a fish sambo on the Galata bridge, dominated several kilos of cherries at $2 AU a kilo. But, as is always the case, I have to cut off somewhere, otherwise I will spend more time writing than anything else. And it is important that doesn’t happen as then I will have to write about writing, and not only would that be boring and unreadable, but it will also, of course, lead to a state of infinite recursion that will see this keyboard become my deathbed.