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?"


i can't claim to have ever been an istanbullu, but the picture you paint, does take me straight back to many a ferry ride, simit and all (though I'll pass on the sahlep!) :)