Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 2 comments

How to Ride the Ferry Like a Local

I always feel like a real "Istanbullu" after having run to catch a ferry. There is something so exhilarating about hearing that "last call" fog horn sound, racing across the plaza to the ferry building and swiping your Akbil (transit pass), then making a mad dash for the docks. Some days it's just not your day and you make it to the doors only to have them slammed shut in your face. But then there are those glorious days (I had two last week) when you just barely slide through the doors and leap onto the ferry just as the ropes are being undone and the gangplanks lifted. Out of breath and feeling supremely victorious, you congratulate yourself and then make your way upstairs to find a seat.

No matter how cold it is, I nearly always prefer to sit outside where all the action is. There is nothing like the scent of the sea and the feeling of the wind whipping past, watching century upon century of history glide by as you make our way across to The Other Side. ("The Other Side," you must know, is a real and true place. Whether you are in Asian or European Istanbul, the opposite shore is simply referred to as "The Other Side." It's kind of like how they refer to leaving the country. Whether I’m heading on a quick visa run or clear across the globe to Canada, my friends will always say I'm heading "to the outside of the country" - but it's used more in the sense of an actual destination (interchangeable with, say, Germany) and less in terms of "everything outside Turkey's borders." This little language nuance has always amused me.)

(Is it legal to use parentheses inside of an already parenthetical statement? Cuz I just did.)

Anyways, enough digression. Back to the ferry. A must on these 20 minute "intercontinental crossings" is a hot cup of tea - 50 cents from the man who comes around selling them on his tray. (That's another thing that makes me feel like a local – having the correct change ready when he comes around instead of having to ask the price.) On cold winter days, they offer something even better than tea – sahlep. Sahlep, made from crushed orchids, is a creamy, cinnamony bit of heaven in a glass – the perfect companion on a chilly journey. You wrap your freezing fingers around that little cup of glory and inhale its steamy goodness, sighing a sigh of gratitude for this culture which revolves almost singularly around the presence of hot drinks.

And then there's the on-board entertainment. Sometimes it's a mobile salesman who busts out his lemon juicers or paring knives or whatever he's selling and wows the crowd with his demonstration of their magical powers. But much more faithfully, and far more engaging, are the flocks of seagulls that follow each vessel back and forth across the waters, waiting for the morsels of simit (a sesame seed pastry) that passengers toss up in the air into their hungry mouths. (The birds' mouths, not their own - though that would be entertaining, too!) These seagulls possess an amazing amount of endurance and skill, and rarely do you see a bird turn back from exhaustion or a stray chunk of bread fall into the sea. The art of Simit Tossing is a rite of passage for all Istanbullus, one clumsily attempted in childhood and perfected with age, and it is guaranteed to brighten even the greyest of Istanbul days.
When the boat has left Uskudar's Maiden Tower in its wake and the Yeni Camii and the fishermen on the Galata Bridge have come into view, it is time to make your way downstairs and join the throng waiting to disembark. Another distinguishing mark of a true Istanbullu is the ability to leap from the ferry to the dock before the walkways have been lowered and the ropes tied. Great fun.

I once heard a story of a little girl who, as the ferry was docking, slipped and fell into the space between the boat and the dock. A moment later, a man was beside her in the freezing water, and soon the girl and her rescuer were pulled safely to the shore. The girl’s parents hugged her with relief, and the man was surrounded by an admiring crowd. "Bravo!" they cried. "You were so brave to jump into that icy water and save her!"

He put his hands up to silence them, and someone called out, "Shh, let our hero speak!"

When the crowd grew quiet, the man looked around and said, "What I want to know is, who pushed me?"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010 - No comments

False Advertising?

I was up in Istanbul this past week spending time with my Turkish family, and on the way up, I flew Turkish Airlines. Now, their prices are often the steepest as far as domestic tickets go, but on the plus side, you are always guaranteed food. And it's free. (A rarity these days.) I was pretty impressed that I got a sandwich, cake and coffee on a 9 AM flight. No little bags of peanuts here, folks.

However, when I looked closely at the cake, I had to laugh. The label described it as "Homemade Cherry Cake." Really? I can just picture little Ayse Teyze pulling a pan out of the oven in her tiny kitchen, wiping the sweat from her brow and yelling, "Fatma, get in here and help me! I have to get these to the airport in time for the red-eye to Frankfurt!"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010 - 1 comment

Muddled Menus

A few tempting options on a menu I recently perused...

Diet Relish Salad
Chick Sinitzel
Cheedar Cheese
Bake Lamp Cage
Vegetables and Embers.

I could make a killing as a proofreader.

Thursday, January 14, 2010 - No comments

O New Year's Tree, O New Year's Tree....

On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas, for all you Americans), after a delightful day of White Elephant gifts and Cranium and many, many cookies, we arrived home to a surprise on our doorstep: a six foot tall pine tree. No card, no note - just a tree. Rather puzzled (and intrigued), and so as not to offend the sender (who may well have been peering out from behind a nearby curtain) we brought it inside. And died laughing. We figured it may have been a gift from a thoughtful friend who knew that "westerners decorate trees" but didn't realize that Christmas was, in fact, already over. Just in case the giver were to pay a visit, we dutifully snagged some decorations from our "real" tree, spruced up the newcomer and gave it a prominent spot in our living room. A few days later, we came to learn that our chop-happy gardener (seriously, the man's idea of pruning is hacking all things green down to the size of a stick) had been cutting down some trees that week and, remembering that last year my roommate had asked him for "a few boughs of greenery to decorate the banister," he decided to go all out and give us what turned out to be an extremely long branch. He may not be the best horticulturist, but he has a heart of gold. :)

Apparently the custom of putting up "New Years trees" has really caught on in Turkey in the last few years. In fact, towards the end of December, you'll see shop windows and shopping malls decked to the hilt much as you would see at home. (See post below for more background.) I even saw on the news just after Christmas that the Department of Forestry was reporting a rise in people stealing trees from government land to take home and decorate. :) It seems that, through films mostly, much of the commercial Christmas hype has made its way into the nation with all the glitz and none of the meaning. (Hmm, however did that happen?) There's no such thing as Jesus' birthday here, so all the festivities centre around the start of the New Year. There is a good bit of confusion over why we foreigners celebrate New Years "a week early," so we are forever explaining that there are, in fact, two holidays that same week, and that the first and more important one is what all the fuss is about.

Sad as the lack of knowledge of "the true meaning of Christmas" is to me (both here and in my home country), I have to admit, it was rather comforting to walk down the street and see Santa hats on the mannequins and fake snow in the windows. :)